A Gift From Mother Nature

Basil For Beginners

Herbs For Flavor And Flare

Herbs The Friendly Plants

Home Made Herbal Teas


Basil For Beginners

"I believe that for everything that can go wrong with a body on this planet, the cure or prevention is also to be found on this planet." Sylvia Richards

With its fine aroma and gentle minty flavour basil is a very popular herb. Here, I will provide a little background, some information on how to grow and preserve it, and some ideas for where and how to use it.

Basil has been a favourite in both the kitchen and the medicine chest for thousands of years, and has figured strongly in magical and religious ceremonies for centuries. It has had a somewhat contradictory reputation down through the ages. To the ancient Greeks and Romans, the herb was a symbol of misfortune, hostility and insanity. They believed that to grow truly fragrant basil, one had to shout and swear angrily while sowing its seeds. The Romans, too, believed that the more it was abused, the better it would prosper. Other folk traditions associated the herb with love and in Northern Europe, lovers exchanged basil sprigs as signs of faithfulness. In India, basil has long been revered as sacred to both Krishna and Vishnu. The native species is even called "holy basil." Hindus believe it protects people from spirits in life and death and honour it by growing the plant in their homes and making daily offerings of flowers to it. Every good Hindu goes to his rest with a basil leaf on his breast. This is his passport to Paradise. Haitian shopkeepers sprinkle basil water around their stores to ward off evil spirits and bring prosperity. The Jews hold sprays of basil in their hands to give them strength during religious fasts In France it was regularly fed to young princes.

Basil seems to have arrived in England around 1548. It was used as a strewing herb, and in Tudor days, farmers’ wives often gave little pots of basil to visitors. By the 17th century, basil was being widely used in Europe to treat colds, warts, and intestinal worms. Then the French botanist Tournefort published a tale that tarnished the herb's reputation for years:
"A certain Gentleman of Sienna, being wonderfully taken and delighted with the Smell of Basil, was wont very frequently to take the Powder of the dry Herb and snuff it up his Nose but in short Time, he'd turned mad and died and his Head being opened by Surgeons, there was found a Nest of Scorpions in his Brain."
From then on it was generally believed that a sprig of Basil left under a pot would, in time, turn to a scorpion.

You can buy basil fresh (preferable) or dried, but as fresh basil can be quite expensive, if you decide you like the herb, it's better - and much cheaper - if you can grow your own. Basil is very easy to grow, (ideal for beginners) either from a packet of seeds or a few young plants from the garden centre, and there's nothing to beat herbs freshly picked from the garden. When I plant anything in my garden, I like to think of it as a guest I've invited to stay. This particular guest, Basil, comes from a warm climate, and needs a sunny, sheltered spot if it is to be happy. An ideal place would be in a pot by a south-facing wall on a patio or terrace. It would also do well in a window box. As Basil has come to help you in the kitchen, it would be better if you can place it nearby for easy picking whenever you need it!

Plant seeds about half an inch deep in well drained, moderately rich soil. Seedlings should not be planted until the first week in June, when the soil is warm the frosts are over. Germination typically takes a ten to fourteen days. Thin seedlings to eight inches apart in rows one foot (30 cm) apart as each plant will need a lot of space.

Once your basil is established, you will have to give it a little care, because if you leave it to itself, it will probably grow into a tall, thin, spindly plant with only a few edible leaves. You can encourage more sideways growth by removing the top young leaves as it grows, to make a bushier plant. This is called 'pinching out' the plant. Regular harvesting of the herb will also encourage more vigorous growth. Basil just likes to feel useful I guess!

Water regularly to keep growth succulent and the foliage fresh, green and bright, but, as basil does not like to sit with its 'feet' in water, let the soil dry out between each watering so that it's not continuously moist. Do not fertilize the plant, as flavour is likely to be sacrificed for lush growth. Basil is what we call a "tender annual" which means it will just last for the one season outdoors, and leave (die off) fairly quickly in cold weather. You may be able to prolong its stay by bringing it indoors at the first sign of a cold snap. If you bring it in early in September, you should have a good supply of fresh basil leaves well into the winter.

Before the plant flowers, harvest your own basil, or try to find a cheap and bountiful supply of the fresh herb, and preserve it. This can be done in two ways. The best way is to freeze the pureed leaves in ice cube trays. This makes it quick and convenient to use - simply drop a frozen cube straight into the recipe you're preparing. The second way is to dry it slowly in a very low oven, then crumble it and store in an airtight jar. This method is easy, but doesn=t preserve the flavour nearly as well.

This very versatile herb is used in various cuisines including Italian, Thai, Vietnamese and many others. Basil has a warm flavour, with just a hint of spiced aniseed. If ever there was a marriage made in "herb heaven" it would be that of basil and tomatoes. Once you've tried a tomato salad or sandwich with basil, you won't be able to separate the two again, Serve young leaves of basil raw in salads, or cooked in a rich tomato sauce for pasta. Basil is, perhaps, best known for its use as the prime ingredient of pesto sauce. This thick green sauce is made by pounding fresh basil leaves with garlic, olive oil, pine kernels, and Parmesan cheese. Do not tear or cut basil leaves until you are actually ready to use them, as this will destroy the vitamin C content. Avoid lengthy cooking to cook preserve the colour.

Basil lends an interesting flavour to practically all foods. Try it in tomato juice or seafood cocktails. Use the whorls of flowers, steeped in olive oil, to flavour olives. As basil increases in flavour when cooked, it is great in egg and cheese dishes. Add it to pancakes, omelettes, cheese soups, Welsh rarebit or fondue. Use it to flavour soups, stews, marinades, stuffing, butter and sauces. Snip some over tomato, minestrone, or pea soup. Beef, liver, veal, lamb, pork, sausages, poultry, game, and fish are all improved by the addition of crushed sweet basil. It is excellent with mushrooms and also goes well with carrots, cabbage, courgettes, cucumber, lettuce, onions, potatoes, and green beans. Basil tastes good with fruit as well.

Physicians of old were quite unable to agree as to basil's medicinal value, some declaring that it was no good, and others that it was a precious healer. Despite their disagreement, at one time or another, basil has been recommended for just about every conceivable ailment - to kill internal parasites, to treat drug withdrawal and to stimulate the immune system. Modern research has shown that basil does indeed have medicinal properties. It is a member of the mint herb family, and like all its relatives, a good digestive aid. It is also good for the nerves, and can relieve stress and depression, promote sleep, and even sharpen the memory. If you are stung or bitten, rub the place with a basil leaf to relieve it. Chew the fresh leaves to freshen the breath. Basil tea (made from the leaves) can break a fever, and is reputed to relieve headaches due to colds, indigestion or nervous tension. Basil affects the lungs and since the 17th century, it has been widely used to treat colds, coughs, bronchitis, and flu. It will help expel a head cold. Rich in vitamin A, basil is good for the eyes.

Essential oil of basil is used in aromatherapy for mental fatigue, depression, and to strengthen the respiratory tract. Diluted with almond or sunflower oil, it can be rubbed onto the abdomen to aid digestion, or onto the limbs to ease muscle aches and pains.

* No uterine stimulant has ever been identified in basil, but given its long use in various cultures to encourage menstruation and induce labour, pregnant women should limit their consumption to culinary amounts. During pregnancy it should not be used in the form of the essential oil nor taken as a tea.

* Basil may lower blood sugar. If you have diabetes, don't use basil medicinally when taking insulin or oral drugs to treat diabetes. Use this herb only in culinary amounts.

Basil is an ancient plant, popular for home gardens on account of its fragrance. Use the fresh leaves externally as a safe, natural insect repellent. A pot of basil in the house will discourage flies, mosquitoes and cockroaches. Essential oil of basil can also be used as a bath additive, for inhalation, massage, and as a room fragrance.

There are many varieties of basil, but in the West, the best-known ones are Sweet Basil, which provides typical Italian flavour and aroma, and the purple-leafed 'holy' basil used in Asian cooking.

Whichever variety you choose, and whether you decide to buy it or grow it, basil is a treat for your senses and a great addition to your garden, your kitchen and your medicine cabinet.

By Sylvia Richards 15th August 2009

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NOTE: The writer is not a medical professional. The information in this article and on the Spiritual Haven web site is NOT medical advice. Consult a trained doctor or herbalist before attempting any treatment. We are not responsible for any misuse of information posted on this site.



© 2009 Sylvia Richards www.yourspiritualhaven.com  All rights reserved.