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 pots on the deck 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 few 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 until the fish is cooked. The leaves turn black, which is fine because you can throw them away before you serve the dish but they leave the fish infused with a unique smoked lemon flavor. We also like to make syrups by boiling 1 cup of sugar, ½ cup water, and about ½ cup of leaves in a small saucepan for a few minutes. After straining out and removing the leaves, we let the syrup cool and then drizzle the sweet lemon liquid over fresh fruit or cold drinks like lemonade and ice tea.
Mrs. Burns lemon basil is an heirloom cultivar of a sweet basil and yes, there really was a Mrs. Burns who introduced the plant in 1939 in New Mexico. This particular cultivar is different than “lemon basil,” the lemon flavor is supposed to be more intense and the leaves are supposed to be larger than lemon basil. Certainly the leaves are lighter, smoother, and more pointed than sweet basil.
In addition to its culinary use, Mrs. Burns lemon basil attracts birds after the plant has flowered and set seeds. I deliberately do not harvest some of my plants to have a stand of tall flower stalks with whorls of seeds by summer’s end. Yellow finches in particular love to eat the seeds off the stalks. Then in October, before the first frost, I cut the stalks and put them upside down in a large paper bag. Later, while watching Downtown Abbey in January, I pull the stalks out of the bag and extract the remaining seeds to plant in May. It’s a full circle but then so is gardening.