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