Italian guys like their basil. Of all the plants I grow, it's about all my husband notices. I want to keep him happy, but honestly, I think growing Sweet Basil, or Large Leaf Italian (Omimum basilicum) is kind of boring. Don't get me wrong - I wouldn't be without it for cooking, but visually, it's more green leaves. He thinks I'm a plant snob - I just want interesting plants.
Turns out you can have both. It was my friend Betsy Williams who pointed this out to me. This is a woman who knows her way around the garden and the kitchen, so I paid attention when she started talking about basils - did you know there are between 130-160 named varieties? She was teaching a class titled The Wonderful World of Basils. Just what I needed, but unfortunately too far away for me to attend. Instead, we met up at a Garden Writers regional meeting and she hooked me up with some of her favorites.
Is purple the new green? Basil 'Red Ruby' livened up the otherwise dull green border of sweet basil we have around our veggie garden. I think it looks weird when you cook with it, but in salads it's the best! The anise flavored leaf is yummy with other greens. Next to it is Basil 'Siam Queen' (Ocimum thrysiflora), an improved version of Thai basil. It tastes a little lemony with a hint of licorice. Aren't these purple flowers scrumptious? I didn't try eating them though, I put them in flower arrangements.
I liked this combination so much, I added more varieties in containers on either side of the vegetable garden.The one below is planted with Thai basil (Ocimum basilicum var. thyrsiflora), Dill (Anethum graveolens) and Pineapple sage (Salvia elegans).
At this point I decided to give up on ornamentals and add vegetables and basils to the containers on the patio garden. I don't know why I didn't think of this before - after all, it's right by the kitchen door.
I never dreamed this little leafed basil would get so big! You can't beat Bush basil (Ocimum minimum) for its mild, sweet flavor. I like the rich textural detail and tidy growth habit. Perfect while I'm waiting for that leggy broccoli to grow!
I had already planted the container below with Hakonochloa, Kale, and Angelonia. It only gets morning sun, but I took a chance and added Holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum). Also known as tulsi, it is used for teas. The soft, grayish foliage has a very aromatic smell and lemony flavor. It didn't mind the low light either - in fact, it quickly took over most of the container!
Betsy tells me Columnar basil (Ocimum basilicum) is one of her favorites. It is reported to be slightly frost resistent - she plans to take hers indoors for the winter. I like the long narrow shape - it doesn't take up much space and adds height. I haven't seen any flowers yet, but it's such a cool plant, who cares?
I planted the two basils below in the perennial border by the patio because they are supposed to get big. Below is African basil (Ocimum killimamdscharicum) - so far only 2 feet tall. But that's fine with me, it's quite a spreader. I like the way it nestled into the coneflowers, and it smells good.
Cardinal basil (Ocimum basilicum), another favorite of Betsy's, is reported to have standout red blossoms that look like celosia. Mine hasn't flowered yet, but it has an interesting upright habit with large minty tasting leaves that are kind of thick but not tough.
In spite of myself, I have to admit that I've become a basil aficianado. Aside from enjoying how they look, growing them has been a taste treat. In my opinion, there's nothing better than throwing a variety of basils into a green salad or a sandwich. Chopping them up and putting them in olive oil is delicious.
My descriptions of the tastes are subjective, so we decided to hold an impromptu taste test in our kitchen with a few neighbors. My husband loved this part, although he still thinks you can't beat the taste of sweet basil.
Here's the rundown of opinions with varieties in clockwise order.
1. Bush Basil: mild and sweet
2. Holy Basil: lemony, another opinion was peppery
3. Siam Queen: a little lemony, licoricy
4. Thai Basil: minty
5. Columnar Basil:(middle of photo) more like sweet basil, tough with a lemony aftertaste
6. African Basil: peppery
7. Red Ruby Basil: tastes like anise, no one liked it
8. Sweet Basil: sweet, but a little hot
Flavorful and floriforous - what's not to like? But hey, don't take my word for it - try some of your own!