Basils – Form, Function & Beauty

Basil (Ocimum sp.) has a long culinary history throughout the world and is not difficult to grow and enjoy in our gardens during the warmer portions of the growing season.  As I’ve been selecting those types that we’ll be offering at our Spring Plant Sale (Mother’s Day weekend!), I’m continually amazed by the sheer volume of available varieties, particularly of the sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) selections.  Cinnamon, lime, lemon and Thai basils are other notable opportunities for the garden and kitchen and what I think is most underappreciated about basils is their ornamental appeal.  Check out the photos in this blog for many of the compact forms, red/purple cultivars, a variegated selection, etc.  I consider basil a must for the kitchen garden but it also has value as a bedding plant if properly tended.  If you are going to the store in the summer to buy “fresh” basil for a recipe, you should be embarrassed!

Native in tropical regions from central Africa to Southeast Asia, this mint family (Lamiaceae) plant likes it hot and not overly moist.  Be wary of cool and damp spring soils and consider planting basil a bit later when soils have warmed and the nights aren’t so cool.  Well drained soil is a must and container situations in full sun are usually ideal for this tough plant.  While the flowers of basil are also edible (with many being quite beautiful), cutting these off (deadheading) is recommended to maximize growth of the foliage which also responds well to frequent cutting, trimming and picking!  Good air circulation in a sunny spot with excellent drainage is vital for the health of basil which can suffer from many pathogens (molds, mildews, etc.) if not happy.  We’ve found that overhead irrigation hasn’t been well received by our basils as the leaves tend to stay wet longer and invite disease problems.  I wont even go in to all the culinary uses (I’m not a proficient cook incidentally) of basil but will leave that to the gardener/cook that enjoys the convenience, beauty and myriad use of this easily grown herb in the home garden!

‘Dolce Fresca’ (above) – excellent sweet basil selection

‘Bambino Purple’ (above)

‘Magic Mountain’ (above) – very ornamental and less cold sensitive than others

‘Micrette’ (above) – great in a container

‘Purple Ball’ (above and below) – softball-size!

awesome basils in the herb garden at Olbrich Botanical Garden (Madison, WI, USA) – ‘Pluto’ used as the “edger”

‘Dark Opal’ (above and below)

‘Purple Ruffles’ (above and two below)

‘Ruby Frills’ (above)

‘Genovese Red Freddy’ (above and below)

holy basil (above and three below) – Ocimum sanctum – research common and historical uses!

‘Crimson King’ (above) – one of the darkest out there!

‘Dark Opal’

‘Magical Michael’ (above)

‘Pesto Perpetuo’ (Ocimum x citiodorum) – above and six photos below – no flowers, natural “ovoid” shape!


‘Oriental Breeze’ (above)

‘African Blue’ (above) – sterile (buy as a plant), strong camphor scent

‘Amethyst Improved’ (above) with ‘Marguerite’ sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas)

‘Aristotle’ (above) – basketball-size!

sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) above at Boerner Botanical Garden (Hales Corners, WI)

‘Pluto’ (above)

‘Queen of Sheba’ (above)

‘Red Lettuce Leaf’ (above)

‘Dark Opal’ (above and below)

‘Sweet Petra Dark’ (above) – the darkest in my opinion

‘Dark Opal’ above in composition with variegated tapioca plant (Manihot esculenta ‘Variegata’) – above

‘Pluto’ above in composition at Allen Centennial Garden (UW-Madison campus)

‘Amethyst Improved’ (above) with coleus

‘Pesto Perpetuo’ in containers at RBG (above) and elsewhere (below)

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