The king of the ardent kitchen

And she forgot the stars, the moon, and sun,

And she forgot the blue above the trees,

And she forgot the dells where waters run,

And she forgot the chilly autumn breeze;

She had no knowledge when the day was done,

And the new morn she saw not: but in peace

Hung over her sweet Basil evermore,

And moisten’d it with tears unto the core.

—excerpt from Isabella or The Pot of Basil, by the English Romantic poet John Keats (1795-1821)

Isabella and the Pot of Basil (1868) by William Holman Hunt

Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is a herb that features prominently not only in Italian cuisine, but also in the Southeast Asian cuisines of Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Basil is originally native to Iran, India and other tropical regions of Asia, having been cultivated there for more than 5,000 years. There are lots of different varieties of basil, such as Thai basil, lemon basil, and holy basil, but the one used in Italian cooking is commonly called sweet basil. The name basil comes from the Greek βασιλεύς (basileus), meaning “king”…there are several stories for how basil got it’s name, but I personally suspect that it was simply called “the king” in recognition of it’s fecund leafiness, superior fragrance, intense flavor, and it’s culinary prowess.

Cooking isn’t the only thing the King is good at, apparently. Basil appears in many spells for drawing love, for fertility, money and business, happy home spells and psychic power. I like Judika Illes‘ Grow a Lover Spell, where she instructs you to

“Grow basil in pots at home to draw love and also to counter lack of erotic interest.”

It is a symbol of love in present-day Italy, whilst in Portugal, Dwarf Bush Basil is traditionally presented in a pot, together with a poem and a pom-pom, to a sweetheart, on the religious holidays of Saint John and Saint Anthony. However, basil represented hatred in ancient Greece, and European lore sometimes claims that basil is a symbol of Satan. African legend claims that basil protects against scorpions, while the English botanist Culpeper cites one “Hilarius, a French physician” as affirming it as common knowledge that smelling basil too much would breed scorpions in the brain. (via Wikipedia)

basil detail

I love basil for all these reasons, and also for the ease with which it can be propagated. I have never had a problem growing it: it’s nearly as aggressive as a weed in the tropical climes I have lived in all my life! You can propagate it by seed, and it can also be propagated very reliably from cuttings: Wikipedia recommends suspending the green stems of short cuttings for two weeks or so in water until roots develop…but I planted whole borders of basil around my parents’ home in Manila just by taking cuttings of woody stems of older plants (you strip off all but three or four leaves), sticking them straight into the soil, and watering them everyday.

I am trying to slowly build up a little potted garden on the deck of our houseboat, SonOfAGun, and along with tomatoes, chillies, malunggay (Moringa olifeira) and what flowers will thrive in the salty air of the sea, I wanted some basil plants to cook with. I bought an ordinary packet of seeds (Yates) from the supermarket, and sowed them in a deep plastic bin. Within three days they had sprouted,

sweet basil and "cottage garden" flowers

and two weeks later they are looking very genki, indeed!

o-genki desu ka?

Basil flowers are pretty little things borne on a terminal spike, sometimes white though I have had pale purple flowering basil, as well. But if you want the herb for cooking, flowers are an unwelcome beauty. If a stem successfully produces mature flowers, leaf production slows or stops on any stem which flowers, the stem becomes woody, and essential oil production declines. To prevent this you have to pinch off flower stems before they are fully mature. Because only the blooming stem is so affected, some can be pinched for leaf production, while others are left to bloom for decoration or seeds.

Harvesting your basil is actually good for the plant,as picking the leaves off the plant helps “promote growth”, largely because the plant responds by converting pairs of leaflets next to the topmost leaves into new stems. For a bushier plant, make more pesto!

pesto alla Genovese

Once the plant is allowed to flower, it produces small black seeds which can be saved and planted the following year. The Thais use the basil seeds as an ingredient in themselves, for desserts. I have never tried these sweet drinks they make, but my guess is the seeds must taste a bit lemony? If I remember, 6 months from now, I’ll try and collect some seeds to cook with. Ω


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