Member of the family Lamiaceae
Basil is typically an annual, but some varieties can grow as perennials in warm, tropical climates.
The word basil has its root in the Greek basileus, which means king, and many cooks consider basil to be the king of herbs. In German it is called Königskraut, in French Herbe royale – litterally the king’s herb. The genus name Ocymum has it’s origin in Ocimum, which is the Latin version of the Greek plant name okimon. It derives from the verb ozein which means smell.
The Italians love their sweet and aromatic basilico and it is prominently featured in their cuisine, especially in combination with tomatoes.
South Asian countries also use a lot of basil in their cuisines.
Basil has many varieties, including hybrids also called basil. The smell and taste come in many variations.
The Italian variety is usually called sweet basil due to it’s sweet smell. The South Asian varieties as Thai basil (Ocymum basilicum var. thyrsiflora), lemon basil (Ocymum basilicum citriodorum) or holy basil (Ocymum sanctum = Ocymum tenuiflorum), can often have a more pungent smell and taste.
Basil has been cultivated for over 5000 years, originally in India and other tropical regions of Asia. In India basil is not so much used culinary. It is rather considered a sacred plant, probably symbolizing Lakshmi, the wife of Vishnu.
The wild basil (Calamintha clinopodium) or basil thyme, or horse thyme, is a hairy plant growing in bushy places, and bearing whorls of purple flowers with a strong odor of cloves.
Basil was used at funerals in Persia. Its seeds were sown by the Romans with maledictions and curses through the belief that the more it was abused the better it would prosper. When desiring a good crop they trod it down with their feet, and prayed the gods it might not vegetate. The Greeks likewise supposed basil to thrive best when sown with swearing.
Basil grows best in hot, dry climate. It usually grows to between 30-130 cm height. The plant is very sensitive to cold and loves strong sunlight. It can be grown i a pot indoors, although it will thrive better when planted on a sunny, sandy spot in the garden. It will not survive temperatures reaching freezing point. If it has seeded it will grow back next spring.
It is recommended to pinch off the flowers before they mature to keep the foliage production alive.
The leaves are what is used culinary, and they are best before the plant is flowering. The leaves are always best used fresh, they very soon loose their flavor if they are allowed to dry.