Basil





(Ocymum basilicum, Linn.), an annual herb of the order Labiatae.

The popular name, derived from the specific, signifies royal or kingly,

probably because of the plant's use in feasts. In France it is known as

herb royale, royal herb. The generic name is derived from Oza, a Greek

word signifying odor.



The plant is a native of tropical Asia, where for centuries, especially

in India, it has been highly esteemed as a condiment. Probably the early

Greek and Roman writers were well acquainted with it, but commentators

are not decided. They suppose that the Okimon of Hippocrates,

Dioscorides and Theophrastus is the same as Ocimum hortense of

Columella and Varro.



The plant's introduction into England was about 1548, or perhaps a

little earlier, but probably not prior to 1538, because Turner does not

mention it in his "Libellus," published in that year. It seems to have

grown rapidly in popularity, for in 1586 Lyte speaks of it as if well

known. In America it has been cultivated somewhat for about a century

partly because of its fragrant leaves which are employed in bouquets,

but mainly for flavoring culinary concoctions. In Australia it is also

more or less grown, and in countries where French commerce or other

interests have penetrated it is well known.



There are several related species which, in America less than in Europe

or the East, have attracted attention. The most important of these is

dwarf or bush basil (O. minimum, Linn.), a small Chilian species also

reported from Cochin China. It was introduced into cultivation in Europe

in 1573. On account of its compact form it is popular in gardens as an

edging as well as a culinary herb, for more than a century it has been

grown in America. Sacred basil (O. sanctum), an oriental species, is

cultivated near temples in India and its odoriferous oil extracted for

religious uses. Formerly the common species was considered sacred by the

Brahmins who used it especially in honor of Vishnu and in funeral rites.

An African species, O. fruticosum, is highly valued at the Cape of

Good Hope for its perfume.



Description.--From the small, fibrous roots the square stems stand

erect about 1 foot tall. They are very branching and leafy. The leaves

are green, except as noted below, ovate, pointed, opposite, somewhat

toothed, rather succulent and highly fragrant. The little white flowers

which appear in midsummer are racemed in leafy whorls, followed by small

black fruits, popularly called seeds. These, like flaxseed, emit a

mucilaginous substance when soaked in water. About 23,000 weigh an

ounce, and 10 ounces fill a pint. Their vitality lasts about eight

years.



Like most of the other culinary herbs, basil has varied little in

several centuries; there are no well-marked varieties of modern origin.

Only three varieties of common basil are listed in America; Vilmorin

lists only five French ones. Purple basil has lilac flowers, and when

grown in the sun also purple leaf stems and young branches.

Lettuce-leaved basil has large, pale-green blistered and wrinkled leaves

like those of lettuce. Its closely set clusters of flowers appear

somewhat late. The leaves are larger and fewer than in the common

variety.



The dwarf species is more compact, branching and dainty than the common

species. It has three varieties; one with deep violet foliage and stems

and lilac white flowers, and two with green leaves, one very dense and

compact.



East Indian, or Tree Basil (O. gratissimum, Linn.), a well-known

species in the Orient, seems to have a substitute in O. suave, also

known by the same popular name, and presumably the species cultivated in

Europe and to some extent in America. It is an upright, branching

annual, which forms a pyramidal bush about 20 inches tall and often 15

inches in diameter. It favors very warm situations and tropical

countries.



Cultivation.--Basil is propagated by seeds. Because these are very

small, they are best sown in flats under glass, covered lightly with

finely sifted soil and moistened by standing in a shallow pan of water

until the surface shows a wet spot. When about an inch tall, the

seedlings must be pricked out 2 inches apart each way in larger-sized

flats. When 3 inches tall they will be large enough for the garden,

where they should be set 1 foot asunder in rows 15 to 18 inches apart.

Often the seed is sown in the mellow border as early in the spring as

the ground can be worked. This method demands perhaps more attention

than the former, because of weeds and because the rows cannot be easily

seen. When transplanting, preference should be given to a sunny

situation in a mellow, light, fertile, rather dry soil thoroughly well

prepared and as free from weeds as possible. From the start the ground

must be kept loose, open and clean. When the plants meet in the rows

cultivation may stop.



First gatherings of foliage should begin by midsummer when the plants

start to blossom. Then they may be cut to within a few inches of the

ground. The stumps should develop a second and even a third crop if care

is exercised to keep the surface clean and open. A little dressing of

quickly available fertilizer applied at this time is helpful. For seed

some of the best plants should be left uncut. The seed should ripen by

mid-autumn.



For winter use plants may be transplanted from the garden, or seedlings

may be started in September. The seeds should be sown two to the inch

and the seedlings transplanted to pots or boxes. A handy pot is the

4-inch standard; this is large enough for one plant. In flats the plants

should be 5 or 6 inches apart each way.



Uses.--Basil is one of the most popular herbs in the French cuisine.

It is especially relished in mock turtle soup, which, when correctly

made, derives its peculiar taste chiefly from the clovelike flavor of

basil. In other highly seasoned dishes, such as stews and dressings,

basil is also highly prized. It is less used in salads. A golden yellow

essential oil, which reddens with age, is extracted from the leaves for

uses in perfumery more than in the kitchen.



The original and famous Fetter Lane sausages, formerly popular with

Cockney epicures, owed their reputation mainly to basil. During the

reigns of Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth farmers grew basil in pots

and presented them with compliments to their landladies when these paid

their visits.





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