Tag Archives: Lemon Basil

Basil: More Than Just Pesto

Pesto Perpetuo basil

I cannot imagine a summer without basil; it is the essence of summer. But I don’t limit myself to just one — there is a family of basils in my garden. 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: pesto.  Granted sweet basil has become the poster child for this plant, but there are many different types to explore.  The genus Ocimum has more than 30 species. Within the Ocimum basilicum, there are more than 40 cultivars.  All of these can be used in a variety of ways both in the garden and home.

Basil is an annual, herbaceous plant that prefers warmth, full sun, and well-drained soil. If I think of basil as an annual plant that also flowers, 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 overlap into more than one group. For example, cinnamon basil has fragrant leaves, purple stems and veins, and deep pink flowers. This plant provides scent and flavor as well as color.

cinnamon basil

The following are suggestions for using basil. The exact species or cultivar depends on your personal preference and availability in your area.

Basil as a Container Plant

All types of basil can be used as container plants either 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.

basil flowering in container with ornamental pepper

Basil as an 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.

purple basil

Basil as a Cut Flower in 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.

African blue basil

Basil in 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.

Thai basil

Basil as a Pollinator Magnet

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.

Basil in the Kitchen

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.

sweet basil

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 let a stick of butter sit at room temperature for a few hours and then swirl small pieces of sweet basil into it for use on breads and rolls. (This also makes a good 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).

glass jar of basil sugar syrup

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.

Try growing several basils in your garden this summer. They are easy to find at the local nurseries or visit two local herb nurseries: Debaggio’s Herb Farm and Nursery and Willow Oak Flower & Herb Farm.

You Can Grow That: Mrs. Burns Lemon Basil

lemon basilEvery 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.

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