The Queen of Kitchen Herbs - The Bend Magazine

The Queen of Kitchen Herbs

The essential herb

By: Justin Butts   Photos By: Rachel Benavides

Basil is the queen of kitchen herbs. It has been the most popular herb in history since its first cultivation in India more than 5,000 years ago, and spread early throughout Asia and Africa, where locally cherished varieties have long been cultivated. 

Here are a few favorite varieties for a Coastal Bend garden:
Sweet Basil 
The true basil; most common. Basil quickly loses its flavor in the cooking process, so add fresh basil at the very end to retain flavor. Space 15”. 
Thai Basil 
More subtle than sweet basil, with overtones of anise and licorice. Retains flavor better under heat of cooking than sweet basil. Space at 12”. Green leaves and stunning purple blooms.
Cinnamon Basil
Incredible cinnamon aroma and flavor. Purple flowers. Smaller, more compact variety, space at 12”. Suffers in the heat of our South Texas summers. 
Purple Basil 
Gorgeous purple leaves and purple/white flowers. Does not take the heat of summer well; needs afternoon shade and a wind break. Wilts quickly after cutting in summer. Subtle basil flavor, pretty rather than tasty.
Lemon Basil 
Pungent lemon aroma and flavor. Most powerful of all basil scents. Perfect for fish dishes in summer, when lemons and dill are out of season. 
Spicy Globe Basil 
Small and compact, space at 10”. Makes a nice edging on a path or at the feet of taller plants. Perfect as an indoor potted plant near a sunny window. Flavor is sharp and spicy, more intense than sweet basil. 
African Basil 
The largest basil variety. Space at 18”. Strong camphor aroma and flavor. Grows tree-like, must clip top four leaves and all flowers often to promote bushy growth. Can grow over 36”. 

A Need to Know Basis

Growing Up
Grows easily from seed, but best planted as transplant immediately after Feb. 15 (the average last frost date). Plant in fall through October. Loves heat, dies in first frost (around mid-December). Space basil 12” to 18” according to variety. Plant in well-drained, heavily composted soil. Basil loves heat, but needs afternoon shade in summer. Keep soil moist; water deeply when top inch or two dries out. No fertilizer necessary if soil is well-composted. No pesticides required.

When plant reaches 6” to 8”, prune regularly by pinching top four leaves from each stalk. This stimulates leaf growth to create a bushy rather than leggy plant. Prune often, but never take more than 2/3 of plant (it quickly regrows). Pinch all flowers immediately; full flowering plant stops growing. In late summer, flower growth is inevitable. Use flowers in food or as a gorgeous garnish. Store basil for winter by freezing the leaves in olive oil.

Local Rec’s

I love working with basil. It’s both distinctive and versatile at the same time. It’s especially good with gin, in my experience. I prefer to use it as a complimentary flavor – kind
of like a supporting cast member. Not the star, but the show would be different without them. Cucumber, watermelon, lemon, ginger, and lots of other flavors benefit from the addition of a little fresh, 
herbaceous basil.
– Michael Green, @digitaldarkjedi
  The Post, @thepostlamarpark

Fun Fact
Basil is an ideal companion plant for tomatoes. Basil repels and confuses many pests that attack tomatoes. Plant basil transplants midway between tomato plants in spring or fall tomato planting. African basil is the best variety due to height, followed by sweet basil. Basil competes well for sun with tomato vines early in the season. Then, in hot weather, tomato vines provide much-needed afternoon shade to basil. Many gardeners say that tomatoes planted with basil taste better.