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How To Grow and Use Sweet Basil

photo of sweet basil leaves
Sweet basil (or Basil to his friends) is the undisputed king of the culinary herbs.

Sweet basil, also known as basilie and basiliekruid, originated in India, where it is regarded as a herb sacred to the gods Krishna and Vishnu. It is thought to protect against evil and every Hindu is buried with a leaf of basil – a tulasi – on his or her breast.

How To Use Sweet Basil in Your Cooking

Best used fresh (dried basil does not have the same flavour, a minty taste predominates), sweet basil has a pungent, aromatic and spicy flavour that resembles cloves. It’s an outstanding choice as a home cuisine herb and you can never have too many sweet basil plants growing in your garden.

Sweet basil has a special affinity for tomatoes and tomato-flavoured dishes, and it is an essential ingredient to make a truly wonderful pesto sauce. You can also add sweet basil to beans, cheeses, chicken, eggs, fish, marinades, marrows, mushrooms, pasta and pasta sauces and salads. It also makes a great herb vinegar and herb butter.

Always add it just before serving to cooked dishes as its flavour diminishes with cooking. Pound it with a bit of olive oil or tear it with the fingers, rather than chopping it. Sweet basil combines well with garlic, parsley, rosemary, oregano, thyme and sage.

How To Use Sweet Basil as a Natural Remedy

Sweet basil is used extensively in aromatherapy for ailments such as stress, migraine, colds and hay fever. It has antispasmodic, appetizing, carminative, galactagogue and stomachic properties. It is quite effective for tension headaches, exhaustion and digestive upsets such as stomach cramps, constipation, diarrhea and enteritis.

Make an infusion by adding 2 teaspoons fresh leaves to 1/2 cup boiling-hot water. Steep for about 10 minutes. Strain and drink hot. Take three times a day.

Sweet basil is also used in flower therapy for those who tend to separate spirituality from sexuality, believing the two cannot be integrated.

Traditionally the dried leaves were pounded and, taken as snuff, used as a remedy for colds.

How To Use Sweet Basil for Natural Skin Care

You can make an invigorating beauty bath by adding a strong infusion of fresh basil leaves to your bath. Use 1 cup chopped basil leaves in 2 cups boiling-hot water. Steep for 15-20 minutes. Then add to bath.How To Use Sweet Basil as a Companion Plant

Sweet Basil is a most beneficial companion for your other plants. In particular it enhances the flavour of summer savory and it helps tomatoes to grow larger and more flavoursome.

It’s a good insect repellant for white fly, aphids and fruit fly. A pot of basil, set on a windowsill near an open window, will prevent flies from entering the room through the window.

Nicholas Culpeper observed that ‘… something is the matter, this herb and rue will not grow together, no, nor near one another.’ – but in our experience they are quite happy bedfellows.

You can set pots on windowsills and in open doorways to deter flies, or you can add a few leaves to the barbeque fire to deter moths. You can also grow it as an attractive pot plant for the patio.

How To Grow Your Own Sweet Basil

Sweet basil is a tender annual that grows about 40-60cm high. It prefers well-drained soil in a sunny position. Protect your sweet basil against cold winds and frost. Space the plants about 30cm apart and pinch out the growing tips and flower heads to encourage a bushy habit.

Sweet Basil is propagated from seed and young plants can be purchased from nurseries to plant in your herb garden.

Harvesting and Preserving Your Sweet Basil

Sweet Basil is such a vigorous herb that you’ll always have an abundant harvest to share with others.

Don’t try to dry your sweet basil as the flavour is not the same as fresh basil. You can keep the leaves briefly in plastic bags in the refrigerator or you can preserve them in olive oil or vinegar. To freeze you can puree the leaves with a little water and freeze them in ice cube trays or you can cover both sides with olive oil and freeze them whole.

Purple Splash Basil Vinegar

Definitely one of our favourite basil preservation recipes. Not only because it is a lovely pink, but because the vinegar preserves the flavour of the basil exceptionally as well. We use purple splash in our marinades, salads, stir fries and home-made mustards.

For the bathroom we make it with apple cider vinegar to use as a hair rinse and to add to the bath water. It restores the natural acid mantle of the skin and hair and is exceptionally good for dry, itchy skin – traditional winter skin.

Learn how to make your own herbal vinegar.

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7 Popular Potted Herbs

I’m often asked to recommend herbs for beginners. The following are 7 of my favourite potted herbs. And they all do well in colder areas as well.

potted herbs on a window sill
Potted herbs do exceptionally well on a windowsill.

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is the hardiest of all the herbs. It makes a small, bushy pot plant and the more the leaves are picked the better it does. An infusion of lemon-scented thyme, helps relieve coughs and colds. Use thyme in casseroles and stews, to garnish roasts or added to salad dressings and salads.

Sage (Salvia officinalis) is a robust herb that stands up well to cooking especially in slow simmered casseroles, roasts and grills. It also combines well with cheese. An infusion of sage leaves can be used to treat colds and coughs and it also makes an excellent gargle for sore throats. To make a Sage gargle infuse 3 teaspoons fresh leaves in a cup of boiling water for 15 minutes, strain and cool. Gargle three times a day.

Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) does better in semi-shade if grown in a pot and the soil should be kept moist. The leaves are rich in vitamins A, C, E, and Iron. Build your immune system by eating two tablespoons of chopped fresh parsley each day. Sprinkle it on salads, add it to meat, pasta or cheese sauces at the end of cooking or juice it up in a blender with apple or tomato juice.

Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium) actually prefers cooler weather. Its delicate, fern like leaves are full of vitamin C and have a slightly aniseed taste. It’s best used like parsley, chopped as a garnish or added to salads, soups, sauces, vegetables and meat dishes at the end of cooking. An infusion of the leaves stimulates digestion, relieves head colds, and acts as a blood cleanser.

Oregano (Origanum vulgare) easily withstands winter frost but likes full sun. The more you harvest the better it grows. It has a strong aromatic taste ideal for rich winter food, but use sparingly or it can be overpowering. An infusion of oregano can be used to treat coughs, tiredness and irritability.

Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) grows well in pots and tolerates quite cold weather. It has a bushy form and attractive spikes of blue flowers. Both the leaves and flowers can be used in an infusion to treat bronchitis and loosen mucus. The leaves have a peppery taste and are a good addition to thick soups and stews.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is principally a medicinal herb and can be used to bring down fevers, and helps relieve infections, influenza, and sinusitis. Both the leaves and flowers of the plant are used as an infusion. Add peppermint or a teaspoon of honey if you find the leaves a bit bitter. I use it en-masse in borders and Teresa likes using the flowers in arrangements.