Basil, one of the most aromatic of herbs, tickles the taste buds in culinary pairings, especially with tomatoes, as it grows bountifully in August. It can also be one of the most ornamental herbs, producing large, interesting forms of densely packed leaves that resemble shrubs in the landscape. An unexpected sensory component piqued by basil is the sound it introduces into the garden. The loud hum of bees feasting upon it from dawn to dusk adds another dimension — the pleasing background music of nature. I first met African blue basil at a wedding a few years ago and was wowed by its impressive features. Its heady fragrance created quite the buzz, a memorable and melodic humming prelude to the wedding at an herb farm in Powhatan. Since then, I have savored the lovely form and sensory substance basils can bring to the home garden.
African blue basil blooms profusely like an annual, but it is one of the few types of basil that is perennial. It is a hybrid of two other varieties whose bushy quality and luscious camphor scent come from its 6-foot-tall, woody East African parent (Ocimum kilimandscharicum). The other parent, a purple-leaved ordinary garden basil (O. basilicum ‘Dark Opal’), gives the hybrid its purple color when leaves are young. Those leaves turn green as they mature while retaining a distinctive and beautiful purple-veining pattern. An unusual characteristic of the plant is that it is sterile, unable to produce seeds. Not putting its energy into producing seeds means the plant blooms endlessly all summer long in opulent 3-foot mounds. Whereas most basils bloom and then produce seed heads that need to be pinched off to allow for a better leaf harvest, African blue basil is a plant that looks even better the later in the year it grows. A nice compromise grooming measure is to cut the longest (oldest) flower heads weekly to encourage good leaves to keep forming, but still allow for enough flowers to attract the bee crowd and other beneficial insects such as ladybugs. The long, white and lilac blooms make great cut flowers for arrangements.
The sterile African blue basil must be propagated by cuttings. Find a 6- to 10-inch purple or green (not woody) branch to remove from a dense section of the plant so that removal will help the air flow. Remove all flowers and buds from the branch and check to make sure the stem has 4 to 8 leaf nodes. Gently snip off the bottom 1 to 3 nodes that will be underwater when rooting in a glass jar. Fill the jar with water and immerse cuttings so that 1 to 3 inches of stems are submerged. Place the jar in a sunny spot you can easily observe such as on a windowsill. Keep the water level up and change it to keep it clear. Once enough roots emerge, it is time to pot up the cuttings in about 2 inches of soil per pot. Handle the delicate roots gently as you sprinkle on soil and water lightly. Put the pots outside in a sunny spot, watering every other day. In about two weeks, you should see new roots starting to grow in the drainage holes so the plants are ready to transplant.
One of the most handsome growth habits of any herb is that of the Greek columnar basil. The plant will grow 3 feet tall but only 10 inches across, giving it a stately upright form. This emerald basil is visually as pleasing in the landscape as an evergreen shrub. Typically, it does not flower so it is a super pick for sheer volume of flavor-packed leaves, delicious in sauces, meat dishes, and soups.
Easy-to-grow sweet basil is one of the best for salads, pizza and pesto. Layered onto garden fresh tomatoes and sliced mozzarella with a drizzle of olive oil, this herb is a pungent summer delight. Sweet basil grows well in pots on the patio, handy to the kitchen. When planting directly into the garden, sow seeds in 1- to 2-week intervals to assure that fresh plants will be coming on throughout the season.
Basil does not dry very well, so the best way to preserve the leaves for cooking is to freeze them in ice cube trays. The foliage will turn dark which does not affect the taste, but to keep the leaves green, rub them first with olive oil, then put them in the trays to freeze. Another zesty way to preserve your basil harvest is by making a hearty pesto sauce. Pesto can be scooped into ice cube trays then stored in double plastic baggies to flavor noodles, vegetables and meats all winter long.