I cannot imagine a garden without basil plants. Basil is the essence of summer. I don’t limit myself to just one — I grow lemon, lime, sweet, Thai, holy, and cinnamon, just to name a few. It seems that most people only know sweet basil and only one use for it: pesto. Granted sweet basil has become the poster child, but there are many different types of basil plants to explore. The genus Ocimum has more than 30 species. Within the Ocimum basilicum species, there are more than 40 cultivars. All of these can be used in a variety of ways both in the garden and home.
Basil plants are herbaceous annuals that need warmth, full sun, and well-drained soil. If I think of basil as an annual flowering plant, I can imagine how to use the different varieties. Also, classifying basil into five basic categories makes it easier to select a particular type for a particular function.
- sweet green foliage (the green plant we always associate with pesto such as Genovese or Italian large leaf)
- small leaves and dwarf size (spicy globe basil, dwarf Greek basil, Minette, or Pluto)
- colored foliage (purple leaved Purple Ruffles or Dark Opal or light green/cream variegated Pesto Perpetuo)
- colorful flower heads (Thai Siam Queen has purple stems and fragrant purple flowers), African blue (many prominent purple flowers), or cardinal (purple stems, purple/red flower heads)
- fragrant leaves (holy, lemon, or lime).
Some basils fall in two or more groups. For example, cinnamon basil has fragrant leaves, purple stems and veins, and deep pink flowers. This plant provides scent, flavor, and color.
The following are suggestions for using basil. The exact species or cultivar depends on your personal preference and availability in your area.
All types of basil can be used as container plants for green, variegated, or purple foliage, or colorful flower heads. Basil comes in different sizes from 8 inches to 4 feet so make sure the maximum height is in proportion to the container. Companion plants must also like well-drained soil and the container should have drainage holes. I had a few extra holy basil plants that I stuck in the same container as my bush beans and both are thriving.
Annual in the Garden
All types can be used as an annual in the garden bed, either for green, variegated, or purple foliage or for colorful flower heads or simply to fill in a gap. If you think of basil as a flowering annual like a marigold, you could plant them in the same type of location. My Thai, lemon, and lime basil have filled the gap left by my bleeding heart plant, which goes dormant in the beginning of the summer. In particular, the dwarf basils are best for creating a tight edging effect. They have small leaves, similar to boxwood, and are great for delineating a garden bed in the summer. Spicy globe basil is often used to outline a garden bed.
Cut Flower for a Vase
The basils that are grown for colorful flower heads or dark foliage are beautiful in flower arrangements. For example, Thai and African blue provide purple flowers and Purple Ruffles provide purple leaves.
Potpourri and Dried Flower Arrangements
Basil produces a tall, sturdy flower stalk that dries well and can be used in dried flower arrangements. The leaves or flowers can be used in potpourris, especially the more fragrant leaves such as cinnamon basil. When I cut Thai basil and fresh flowers such as dahlias for a vase, I can throw away the dahlias after they have past their prime and put the Thai basil flower spikes in another vase with purple gomphrena as a dried flower arrangement. A basil flower has a rigid calyx, like a socket, that holds the small delicate flower like a lightbulb. Once the flower is past its prime, it drops out and the rigid calyx remains.
Pollinator Magnet and Bird Food
Basil’s small flowers are attractive to beneficial insects and bees. Birds, such as goldfinches, love the seed heads. I grow lemon basil in a container on the deck to attract the finches so I can see the birds up close through my kitchen window.
Usually a sweet basil such as Genovese is used in pasta, eggs, pesto, soups, salad, and vegetables, but you can try any type of basil. I use lemon basil with fish and Thai basil with stir fried chicken and vegetables. Thai basil is often used in Asian cuisine because it keeps its flavor at high temperatures. Holy basil often is used in Indian cuisine and the sweet basil is often used in the Italian cuisine. There are so many cuisines that employ basil and so many recipes it is best to obtain an herbal cookbook.
The purple basils work well in vinegar or oil for color and scented basils such as cinnamon can be used for flavor in either a vinegar, oil, or marinade. I use the cinnamon which has a purple tinge in homemade vinegar and give it as a gift to my family.
Sweet basil is good for butter and the spicy types are good for honey and jellies. I swirl small pieces of sweet basil into a stick of soft butter for use on breads and rolls. (This also makes a good hostess gift).
Lemonade, cocktails, tea, and fruit juice pair well with basil. Try adding the spicy, cinnamon, lemon or lime flavored basils to these drinks for flavor or just make a cup of tea with basil leaves.
Basil flavors cookies, pound cakes, and breads (rolls, muffins, flatbreads). I use the sweet basil for flatbreads and dinner rolls and the lemon, lime, or cinnamon for pound cakes. For a real conversation piece, sometimes I decorate a cake with basil flowers, which are edible. The actual flower is small and within the calyx so I have to pull the flower out from the calyx with tweezers. This takes time but is good for a special occasion when you want to “wow” folks.
Basil can be used in sugar syrups for fruit salads, desserts, and drinks. This is especially good with cinnamon, lemon, or lime basil. Make a sugar syrup by bringing to boil one cup of water and one cup of sugar with one cup of leaves and then simmer for 15 minutes. Drain through a colander to remove the leaves and let the syrup cool before using. Keep the syrup in a jar in the refrigerator to have on hand (throw out after a week or two).
Another way to “wow” family and friends is to sprinkle strips or ribbons of lemon, lime, or cinnamon basil leaves on fruit salads and/or add the small flowers to the fruit salads (again pull the actual flower out with tweezers). As mentioned before, coat fruit salads with the sugar syrups or intersperse a leaf with chunks of fruit on a kebab.