Ocimum basilicum, commonly referred to as basil, is a member of the Lamiaceae family, or the mint family. Basil is closely related to lavender, marjoram, oregano, thyme and spearmint. While there are numerous varieties of the herb available in this country, the most commonly used basil is referred to as "sweet basil," and is generally grown in Mediterranean countries. This name can be a bit misleading however, as the basil grown in Thailand tends to have the sweetest qualities.
Sweet basil is the type found in Italian dishes. This basil is often used fresh and is better when added towards the end of the cooking process, as cooking quickly dulls the herb's standout flavor.
Sweet basil has .5% to 1.1% essential oil, primarily linalool (40%) and methyl chavicol (25%). Eugenol is the source of the strong clove scent that emanates from basil. Eugenol is the same chemical found in the spice cloves. Soil, climate, and time of harvest will impact the amount of the essential oil of a particular harvest of basil.
In other languages, basil is called habaq, reehan (Arabic), yu xiang ca (Mandarin), basilie/basilic commun (French), basilikum (German), barbar (Hindi), bajiru (Japanese), manjericao (Portuguese), bazilik (Russian) and albahaca, alfabega (Spanish). Is also referred to as "herb royale" and "great basil."
Have you ever feared death from eye contact? The Greeks did. No, they were not especially shy. They were so fearful of the basilisk, a half-lizard, half-dragon creature that was rumored to kill you with just one look that they toted around basil, claiming its protective and magical qualities against the feared beast. The name for the herb comes from the Greek basileus which means "king" but literally translates to "people's leader." Sometimes the herb would even be called basilisk interchangeably with the monster, which makes sense origin wise. Basilisks were considered leaders and kings of the serpents. Basil is considered the king of the herbs. Kings all around, where basil is concerned.
It has been cultivated for over five thousand years, and the first mention of basil in records that are more than likely older than 206 BC, says that the herb only "exists to drive men insane." Genetic diversity leads scientists to believe that the place of origin is Vietnam or Thailand, but there are some people who think it comes from the Mediterranean.
Basil has a strange history of being a contradictory herb. Despite the Greeks using it for protection, it was also considered a dangerous herb that could harm you through its scent. They also linked basil to royalty, but envisioned poverty as something like a woman with tattered clothing growing basil. When the Victorians talked of basil, they had two different meanings for it. Common basil signified hatred for the recipient and sweet basil was the desire of good wishes and fortune. The Italians considered basil to be a symbol of love, but also a symbol of death. The confusing history continues today, as stories of the past often find their way into the future. Readers of books such as The Decameron see basil as a symbol of the love Lisbetta had for Lorenzo, but Harry Potter lovers will see basil, or the basilisk, as a tool to bring fear into the hearts of anyone who encounters it.
It can also be said that basil has some religious significance. In India holy basil, or Tulsi, is associated with Vishnu and Tulsi. Theirs is a love story, tangled up in many versions and variations, but a common version is that Lakshmi was one of three wives of Vishnu, alongside Saraswati and Ganga. Ganga loved to flirt with Vishnu, but it made Saraswati so jealous that she decided one day to drag Ganga to the ground. Lakshmi tried to save Ganga, but Saraswati became even more infuriated and cursed Lakshmi to become a plant on earth, known as Tulsi. Ganga and Saraswati then cursed each other to become rivers; the Ganges and Saraswati rivers respectively. Vishnu helped ease Lakshmi's anguish by telling her that only part of her would become a plant, and that she would return to him. Basil or Tulsi is considered so sacred that even the soil around it is considered holy and people often have tiny pots of it growing by their front door. It is disrespectful to throw trash or waste of any sort away near the plant. Basil is also associated with purification, love, and eternal life and so it is used in Hindu burial rituals. Ancient Egyptians would also use basil in their religious practices and ceremonies, including the preparation of bodies for their mummification, as it was believed that basil would help them on their journey to the afterlife with the gods.
The African voodoo goddess Erzuli too has her hands all over basil. She is said to use the herb to ensure the faithfulness of lovers through spells or divination.
The Greeks and Romans probably introduced England to basil around the 1500s. Basil made its way to America in the 1620's by the Europeans who settled at the Plymouth Colony in New England. If you find your way to a library in New York City and you scan the newspaper pages from the late 1700's very carefully, you will see stores advertising Sweet Basil for sale even then.
Basil leaves, which range from 2-3" long, are oval shaped and broad. Color wise, they are yellowish-green to bright green or they can be red colored. Both size and color of the leaves is dependent on the variety. Climate and the soil make up where the basil is grown also plays a part in determining the size and color of the plant. The texture of the leaves is either silky and shiny or crinkly and dull. The many cultivars in use cause this variety in the textures. Flowers appear as whorls on the ends of branches during the summer months. Whorls are an arrangement of sepals, petals, leaves, stipules or branches that wrap around the stem and come from a single point. These flowers can range from white to purple in color.
Basil thrives in fertile soils which are well-drained and have a high organic matter content. Due to the tender nature of the basil plant's tissue, drought stress is particularly brutal for it, leaving it unlikely to survive. A minimum of 27" of annual rainfall is required for field cultivation.
A sickle-bar type mower with an adjustable cutting height is what commercial producers will use to harvest basil. While some producers will only harvest basil twice a year, once before the full flowering stage and then again during the flowering stage, other producers harvest the crop just as flowering begins. This method encourages regrowth and so then up to three additional harvests are possible during the season. Cuttings can be made at 4-6" above the ground for faster regrowth. To achieve optimal flavor, harvesting is best done in warm, sunny weather.
Differing in growth habit, physiological appearance, as well as chemical and aromatic composition, there are over fifty species of basil. California, Egypt, and France are where most of the basil found in the United States comes from.
Our imported basil is harvested in Egypt.
The primary culinary basil, that which is familiar in Italian cuisine, is Mediterranean Basil (Ocimum basilicum), or sweet basil as it is sometimes called. Cinnamon Basil (Ocimum basilicum 'Cinnamon') has a distinctly cinnamon flavor and is most often used soups or tea making. Greek Basil (Ocimum basilicum var. minimum), or Spicy Globe, is often found in salads as it has soft stems and a spicy character about it. Lemon Basil (Ocimum americanum) has a zesty lemon aroma and it is often paired with soups that are served beside fish. Lime Basil (Ocimum basilicum citriodorum) has a mild scent and taste of citrus and is also seen alongside or on grilled fish. Thai Basil (Ocimum basilicum var. thrysiflora), or Siam Queen, is a frequent addition to Indian and Thai cuisine as it is sweet but also slightly spicy.
Be sure to reach for organic basil if you're shopping for the dried variety, as others may have been irradiated, causing a loss in vitamin C and carotenoids in the basil.
American and Italian kitchens use basil so frequently, it could probably win a popularity contest. Basil is also wildly used in French cuisine where it is found often in various versions of the dried herb blends Fines Herbes and Herbs de Provence.
Recipes from China, the Mediterranean, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam also contain basil. Traditionally used in the seasoning of tomato-based sauces, dressings and juices, basil also pairs exceptionally well with oregano for use in tomato sauce for pizza. Basil and oregano make great additions to tomato based sauces because their more savory flavors compliment the blander sweetness of tomatoes.
Capers, corn, cream cheese, eggplant, eggs, lemon, mozzarella cheese, olives, pasta, peas, pizza, potatoes, rice, tomatoes, white beans and zucchini all taste a little bit more delicious with basil present.
If you are looking to pair basil with something in your cooking, chives, cilantro, garlic, marjoram, oregano, mint, parsley, rosemary and thyme are all excellent choices.
Some herbs are better dried, and basil is one of them. Dried, the plant has a more saturated flavor. In basil, the drying process forces the plant tissue to collapse, which increases the amount of the essential oil present in the herb making the flavor more easily absorbed into foods. Herbs that are better when dried include marjoram, oregano, rosemary and thyme.
Some herbs that are best fresh include cilantro, curry leaves, dill weed, lemon grass and tarragon.
Basil is very aromatic with pepper, anise, and minty tones. Some basils, like lemon basil, have a slightly lemony scent and flavor. It is sweet, yet savory, just as the scent would suggest.
One tablespoon of fresh basil can be replaced for one teaspoon of dried basil.
Serving Size1 tsp
Amount Per Serving
% Daily Value*