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Whenever I smell Italian tomato dishes being prepared in the kitchen, I immediately think of basil, or basilico. Italian cooking and the herb basil are inseparable. Basil, or Oncimum basilicum derives from India where it is very highly revered. The Indian “Holy Basil” is used in many religious ceremonies.
In Rome, orators put a leaf of basil in their mouths to give their words sweetness and truth. In fact, the Roman and Christian basilicas take their names from the same root word, the Greek “basilikon,” which means the place of royalty. And of course, there is the area in Italy called Basilicata on the instep of the peninsula.Basil or basilica is one of the most popular and easiest of herbs to grow. It does like warmth, good earth and ventilation.
Cool, foggy weather often causes it to get molds and fungi which appear as whitish spots. So always plant it in a warm, moderately sunny place or as the proverbial “pot of basil.” In this way, you can move the pots around as the weather dictates. It is probably best to buy six-packs of basil at the nursery centers. Carefully lift the seedlings from the pack and plant them in separate pots using a very well draining potting mix with half parts of peat and crushed pumice. Mix into this some rich garden soil. This mix will hold water but will not become soppy so as to encourage fungus and root rot. If you want to sow basil from seed, (as many people do) use the same potting mix, cover the seeds ever so lightly with a sprinkling of earth, water from the bottom of the pot (by placing the pot in a container of water), and keep the pot in a warm place. The seeds take 7-14 days to sprout, at 70-75 degrees Fahrenheit.
There are many wonderful varieties of basil to choose from, and they can now be bought as seedling plants almost everywhere. The most popular are the large leaved types; “Genovese,” “Napolitana,” and “Italian Large Leaf.” These are very tasty on Italian dishes and good for pesto as well. There are some good large leaf purple types that are beautiful; “Amethyst Improved,” “Dark Opal,” and “Purple Ruffles.” The small leaved basils are also available at garden centers. There is “Fino Verde” which I grew up hearing it called “the good basil,” “Spicy Bush,” the very smallest basil, and “Fine Leaved Superbo.”
These fine leaved types are my favorites because they are so piquant and rich, but in the growing of them they do tend to need a bit more warmth and not too much watering.For a change in varieties, do try the S. E. Asian “Thai Basil” and the large, perennial “African Blue.” These are both attractive as garden plants and delicious in various kinds of ethnic cooking. I really enjoy “African Blue” at my favorite Vietnamese pho restaurant.Basilico is, for me and for many Italian cooks, the royal herb, and you can tell an Italian backyard or home by the pots of basil growing there. My grandparents adored basil, and very few, if any, dishes were cooked in their homes without basilico.