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Save your seeds: Basil

basil
Photo by Robyn Rosenfeldt
basil
Photo by Jean Faucett

Clockwise from above: Tulsi/ holy basil; Basil seeds; Sweet basil going to seed.

seeds
Photo by Sirirak Kaewgorn

BOTANICAL NAME: Ocimum basilicum, O. gratissimum, O. sanctum and O. canum.

ORIGIN:

There are several species of basil, all of them native to either Africa or Asia.

DESCRIPTION:

There are both perennial and annual basils, and their shape and size range from almost prostrate to mighty bushes two metres high.

CULTIVATION:

Basil is predominantly a warm season plant. In cool climates, plant for summer cropping. Perennial basils thrive after a winter pruning.

PROPAGATION:

Both perennial and annual basils can be propagated by cuttings. This way there is no need to be concerned with isolation distances. Just pop the bottom ends of the stalks in a glass of water until white roots start appearing, then replant. Annual basils however are usually propagated by seed.

SAVING THE SEEDS:

Basil flowers are coloured white through to purple. They have an abundant and pungent nectar, and rely on insect pollination, so one basil will cross with others. You will need to separate different varieties by as much garden space as possible (preferably fifty metres).

The seeds mature from the bottom to the top of the flower, and capsules generally contain four seeds. Either cut the stalks or rub your hand up them when the top seed capsules turn brown and brittle.

Dry on a sheet of paper or in a paper bag. Rub well when the seed capsules are crisp and dry, either in between the hands or on a small gauged wire mesh to dislodge the four seeds contained in each capsule.

Place the crushed mixture in a large bowl and carefully whirl the lot until the seeds gather at the bottom of the bowl and the chaff on top. Pick out the bulky chaff with your fingers; the rest can be gently blown over. A very small gauged sieve will let the dust fall through and retain the seed.

STORAGE:

The seeds will last up to five years sealed away in a dark, dry, cool place. They are small and spherical, and there are 600 to the gram.

USE:

Think pesto—a heady mix of sweet annual basil, garlic, Parmesan cheese, olive oil and pine nuts (macadamias can be substituted here) ground up together. The most authentic basil for use in pesto is the ‘Piccolo’ variety.

Basil is recommended as a tea for some forms of headache. A fine powder made of dried basil leaves was used in the olden days as a snuff to clear blocked noses.

ON THE LOOKOUT:

Every Greek and Vietnamese front yard seems to have basil plants. Basil releases its aroma on touch. Some Greek families use them as a border plant along a footpath that is near the front door so they have an advance notice of visitors—a kind of olfactory bell.

O. basilicum is the sweet annual basil of European cultivation. Ask your Russian friends for the famous Malarossy Bazilike. Ask your Spanish friends for Albaca Menuda (Fine Basil) and Albaca de Hojas de Ortiga, or Nettle-leafed Basil which is called Basilico Arricciato by the Italians.

Then there is Holy Basil (o. sanctum) in India, the sacred plant of the gods Krishna and Vishnu. It is bushy and has purple calyces.

O. gratissimum is cultivated in Thailand and Malaysia as ‘Selaseh Besar’, coming in several exotic scents. It has quite small leaves.

O. canum is the ‘Kemangi’ or ‘Hoary Basil’ in Java and Malaysia. It is an annual with a lot of branches up to one metre tall. The aromatic leaves are used in laksa and the seeds are used to make jelly.

Adapted from The Seed Savers’ Handbook by Jude and Michel Fanton (Seed Savers’ Network 1993)

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