Of course we all know basil (Ocimum) as a common cooking herb with some different varieties and flavors. Native to Asia, more specifically India, basil has over a 4,000 year history and the medieval Latin for the name basil translates to "King of Herbs". Some speculate that basil actually originated in Africa. Sacred in India, this herb has many historical uses and it's worth looking up those interesting stories regarding the history of this popular herb. This herb has been associated with death, relationships, the devil, chastity and was once thought to induce the growth of scorpions in the brain! Basil made it to Britain in the 16th century and then made the trip over to North America. The intent of this blog is to not minimize the culinary value of basil but to point out that the wide range of varieties with different leaf colors, forms and flowers truly make this herb an "ornamental edible" as well. The top photo shows the use of basil as part of a planting scheme years ago at Olbrich Botanical Gardens (Madison, WI). Note the darkest maroon leaf plants that are a bit shiny....these are 'Dark Opal' basils (Ocimum basilicum) that were used not for culinary purposes, but for the aesthetic contribution of those dark leaves. Directly above is the variety 'Pluto' which is a tight, compact variety that only gets 8" tall and 8" wide, just perfect for a container component as you see here. It has all the culinary value of many of the large varieties as well. To the right is 'Aristotle', another compact, mounded basil (Ocimum basilicum) that rounds out nicely like a green soccer ball. Imagine these in their own small container or used as a aromatic hedge in the garden! Basil does prefer full sun and moist, well-drained soils. Never let the soil dry out and consider removing flowers of those that you are using for the culinary leaves. To the left is 'Sweet Petra Dark' which to me, is the darkest of all the basils. Those glossy leaves are wonderful visual components in a composition but still have the potential of being used fresh in a recipe immediately. In the composition shot to the right, note the lighter foliaged, oval-shaped plant in the mid-left of that photo. That is the variegated, Greek columnar basil ('Pesto Perpetuo') which is one of the most ornamental for foliage and form. Note the other photos of this variety as well. That is the natural, "egg-on-end shaped" form of 'Pesto Perpetuo'.
At RBG, we've probably grown and displayed over 100 varieties of basil. We have had "Ornamental Edible" collections for the past six years and many of the basils are very prominent in those collections. Those with dark or variegated leaves certainly have merit as do those with tight forms as seen above. However, there are many that have wonderful flowers that make them a decent bedding plant that can be used in groupings or singularly. Incidentally, basil flowers, like the leaves, are also edible. Some of the best varieties for showing blooms include 'Thai Siam Queen', 'Magical Michael', 'Oriental Breeze' and 'Queen of Sheba'. The bloom clusters on all of these varieties are a purple/magenta over green foliage. We had a containerized basil collection of 70 varieties a couple of years ago and it was so nice to see the differences. Some RBG volunteers, our herb society (Janesville Area Herb Society) volunteers and some of the culinary instructors at the local Blackhawk Technical College all utilized these basils and cut them back severely as intended for use. We always display at least 30 varieties out in the gardens and this year is no exception. We try and make sure there is enough sweet basil to go around for later-season pesto recipes.
Fresh basil is quite valuable in the home garden and at my home, we always have sweet basil growing in containers right outside the back door all summer long. Basil responds to multiple cuttings and abuse and will continue to generate more growth during the warmer parts of the growing season. The convenience is nice and of course, we're utilizing the freshest of basil leaves and know all the inputs in to that plant (soil, watering, fertilizer, etc.). You can buy "fresh" basil leaves at the grocery store (#1 purchased fresh herb) but consider when they were picked, how far they were shipped and if they aren't organic, there may be some "unknowns" involved with their growth, maintenance, etc.
We'll be selling a wide range of basils at our spring plant sale (May 12 & 13, 9am-4pm, Horticulture Center) that will be appropriate for the home garden, container, windowbox, etc. RBG Members are invited to a pre-sale on Friday, May 11 (9am-4pm) and get 10% off for the entire duration of the sale. Consider the culinary value of this diverse herb of course but note some of the ornamental differences in these varieties. The merits of colorful leaves, interesting forms and beautiful flowers make basil more than just a utilitarian herb. Consider the potential of this "King of Herbs" in your own garden. Further below are some examples of various basils in garden settings. Directly below is 'Sweet Petra Dark', then 'Thai Siam Queen', 'Dark Opal' amongst the yellow sweet potato vines (Ipomoea batatas 'Margaurite'), 'African Blue' (left), the RBG basil collection in containers, 'Dark Opal' amongst coleus (Solenostemon) and at the bottom, basil (low center) as part of a larger container collection of edibles at Chanticleer gardens (Wayne, PA).