Basil is the most frequently grown herb. It is easy to grow, delicious and attractive. Too often, however, it gets tall and leggy. It seems counter-intuitive but the more you prune basil the bushier it gets and the longer it will live. Harvest every couple of weeks.
Cut basil stems with a pair of scissors about 1/4 inch above leaf sets or nodes. Start when the plants are small and prune as much as desired but leave at least two or three sets of leaves on each stem. From there, the basil plant branches off into several more stems. Flowering adversely affects the herb’s flavor and reduces the growth of new leaves, so pinch off buds as they appear.
Bees and other pollinators love basil. Most varieties set seeds and have a relatively short life but African blue basil is a marvelous hybrid that is sterile and can live for years. Like all basil varieties it is easy to propagate through cuttings. It is often available at plant sales like the Master Gardener sales at the Ag Center in Cocoa.
Choose cuttings that are not too woody. Firm solid green stems are the best. Cut about ¼ inch below a node and pinch off all the leaves up the stem for 4 to 6 inches. Remove blooms (save for your salad). Place cuttings in a glass vase or jar of fresh water. Let them sit in a brightly lit place without extreme heat. Add water as needed. Rootlets will appear after a week or so. In the winter months it takes longer. Once the roots are about an inch long, pot them up or plant them directly in the garden where the bees and pollinators will enjoy their prolific blossoms.
Everyone knows how to make pesto, but there are other delicious green sauces that feature basil in combination with other herbs. They freeze well and are just the thing for brightening a serving of roasted, sautéed or boiled vegetables and enhance any simply prepared meat, poultry or fish. Here is one I like. You can vary the proportions of herbs and add mint or cilantro. It is delicious stirred into Greek yogurt or layered over humus for a healthy dip.
Via Giotto Salsa Verde
2 packed cups of fresh basil leaves
½ cup of packed flat parsley leaves
4 stems of green onions (bulb is too strong for sauce)
Juice from one lemon
2 Tbs. of olive oil
½ cup of shelled pumpkin seeds or another kind of seed
½ teaspoon of crushed red pepper
2 garlic cloves (blanch to tame bitterness)
2 teaspoons of fine sea salt
Ground black pepper to taste
¼ cup of water + 2 to 3 Tbs. for thinning
Method: Place all of the ingredients in a food processor and process until it’s creamy. Add water or olive oil to reach desired consistency. Refrigerate in an airtight container for up to a week or freeze.
Art Inspired by a Pandemic – Isabella and the Pot of Basil
The English Pre-Raphaelite painter John William Waterhouse painted this sensuous scene to illustrate a scene from Keats’s 1818 poem “Isabella and the Pot of Basil.” Keats himself was inspired by a tale from Boccaccio’s Decameron, the famous 14th century book of stories told by a group of young men and women to pass the
time as they sheltered in place from the Black Death pandemic that decimated Florence and all of Europe in the mid-14th century.
The tale is set in Florence. Isabella falls in love with Lorenzo, a young man employed by her rich family. Her three brothers, concerned only about family honor, want her to marry a noble, so they murder Lorenzo and bury his body in the forest. Lorenzo appears to Isabella in a dream and tells her of his fate. His ghost leads Isabella to his burial site. She digs up the body and cuts off her lover’s head, burying it in a pot which she plants with basil. Notice the skull on the pedestal and the red poppies, which are associated with dreaming.
Moistened by Isabella’s tears, the plant flourishes – but Isabella herself wastes away, consumed by grief. The brothers’ suspicions are aroused and they steal the pot. When they discover its contents they are horrified and flee from Florence. Now deprived both of her lover and the pot of basil, Isabella goes mad and dies.