Garden Staple: Mrs. Burns Lemon Basil

lemon basil flowers

Lemon basil flowering in August

Every summer I grow Mrs. Burns lemon basil, a lemon scented type of sweet basil. Like all basil plants, Mrs. Burns lemon basil prefers warm weather, full sun, and plenty of moisture. I grow mine from seeds in large containers and in the vegetable garden.

Throughout the summer I harvest the leaves and use them fresh in fruit salad; with seafood, chicken, and vegetable dishes; as garnishes for drinks, desserts, and salad; and in syrups and vinegar dressings. My family particularly likes using the fresh leaves for tilapia and other white fish fillets. We layer a bunch of leaves and stems on aluminum foil on a broiler pan, then layer the fish fillets on top, drizzled with butter and chopped scallions or bread crumbs, and broil. The leaves turn black, which is fine because you can throw them away before you serve the dish but the fish is infused with a unique smoked lemon flavor.

We also like to make a simple syrup with the leaves. Bring one cup of sugar, one cup of water and about one cup of loosely packed leaves to a boil in a saucepan, smashing the leaves against the side of the saucepan with a spoon. Then reduce the heat and let simmer for 15 minutes. After straining and removing the leaves, let the syrup cool and pour in a glass jar. We like to drizzle the sweet lemon liquid over fresh fruit, cold lemonade, or ice tea.

lemon basil plants

Lemon basil plants in containers

Mrs. Burns lemon basil is an heirloom cultivar of a sweet basil and yes, there really was a Mrs. Burns. Mother to Barney Burns who co-founded Native Seed Search, Mrs. Burns and son moved to Carlsbad, NM, in 1951. Mrs. Burns received the seed from Mrs. Clifton, a local gardener who had been growing it since the 1920.  Because they noted that this particular variety had a great lemon flavor, they saved the seed each year to preserve the trait. In time, other learned of this fabulous plant and shared the seed so now one can often purchase this through various seed catalogs as well as Native Seed Search.

In addition to its culinary uses, Mrs. Burns lemon basil can be cut for floral arrangements. I always like to add an herb to my cut flowers that I bring indoors. If left to flower, the small flowers attract pollinators and beneficial insects. I deliberately do not harvest some of my plants to have a stand of tall flower stalks with whorls of small flowers by August. In September, yellow finches flock around the plants for the seeds. In October, before the first frost, I cut the stalks and put them in a large paper bag. Later, while watching PBS Masterpiece, I pull the stalks out of the bag and extract the seeds to plant next year in May. It’s a full circle but then so is gardening.

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