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Varieties Make Basil More Than Just Sweet

August 13, 1992|KITTY MORSE | Kitty Morse is a writer and cookbook author living in Vista.

No other culinary herb surpasses sweet basil in popularity in the United States. It is the essence of pesto and is used by millions to flavor vegetables, pastas, salads, meats and even fruits.

Although it is a staple in kitchens today, basil was once reserved strictly for medicinal purposes. The ancient Greeks assigned it mythical properties, believing the herb warded off the evil eye. And still, in parts of North Africa, basil serves no culinary purpose but rather little pots of it are placed strategically around the house to keep pesky flies at bay. Whatever your purpose, this is the time of year when the herb is at its peak, especially in North County.

Its growers here are uniformly enthusiastic about its charms. Most are anxious to see consumers get a taste of lesser known varieties as well as the popular sweet variety.

David Carr grows more than 20 varieties of herbs on his Spring Valley farm, but basil outsells his other herbs three to one. The wholesaler also sells herbs at farmer's markets around the county because he says he enjoys being face to face with his customers.

"Show me your garden pictures, please," he asks his regular customers at the Vista and Oceanside farmer's markets. When they give him a Polaroid shot of their herb garden, he gives them a free plant. Carr has six varieties of basil on display at his stand. "Everybody always thinks the large-leafed, sweet basil is the only basil," he said. "People don't experiment." Try out the green bush, he suggested. "It's small-leafed and hard to find but it grows in a perfect little globe and has an intense scent." The purple spicy globe has similar characteristics. Carr's favorite remains lemon basil, for its basil flavor and lemony scent. If a variety is particularly to his liking, Carr will save the seeds, although "differences exist even within the same strain. It all depends on pollination and Mother Nature."

For Suilin Robinson, who owns Multiflora in Vista, selling herbs grew out of her interest in organic farming, and her conviction that "you grow what you eat." Robinson was born in Canton, China, where her mother and her grandmother were both farmers. After the family emigrated to the United States in 1981, Robinson studied greenhouse management at City College of San Francisco.

She decided to concentrate on growing herbs "because herbs have so many uses." Robinson is now researching Chinese herb applications and loves to educate her customers in the fine points of growing and using herbs--especially basil. Sweet basil is her biggest seller, although she enjoys introducing consumers to the lesser-known and decorative purple ruffle, or the large-leafed green ruffle, "the most aromatic basil there is," she said. Cinnamon basil and lemon basil are strongly scented varieties that Robinson reserves for use in fruit cups, or for flavoring pitchers of iced mint tea. "It's the best thirst quencher for summer," she said.

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Thriving bushes of sweet, cinnamon, and lemon basil pierce through the rows of black plastic stretching across Scott Murray's fields in Oceanside. The black, biodegradable plastic not only prevents weeds from taking over the young plants but also slows down evaporation of precious moisture.

Although he has elected to downsize his operation to better match a shrinking specialty market, pesticide-free basil remains Murray's bestseller. His current method of growing basil has resulted in labor conservation, he said. "Before using plastic, I just saw dollar bills spinning out of control." The difference is obvious, even to an untrained eye: In neighboring fields, weeds compete for nutrition and water with young palms and raspberry bushes, requiring constant hand-labor.

Scott's basil varieties include common sweet basil, as well as purple Genovesse, Neapolitano, and a mammoth basil, which produces leaves the "size of a man's hand." Walking through his fields, Scott pulls out a weed or two, and bends down to pick a sprig of lemon basil. He breaks up a leaf to release the intense citrus fragrance. "If you place a sprig of this on your dashboard, it will permeate the whole car," he said. Scott, an avid amateur chef, likes to experiment with basil varieties in making his own pesto.

Basil also accounts for a large portion of sales at the Herban Garden in Rainbow, which recently held a Basil Festival attracting more than 500 herb lovers. Based on the success of that event, another Herb Harvest Festival is planned for early fall. The nursery is owned by Jeanne Dunn and her husband, Chris.

During the upcoming months the Herban Garden expects to have plenty of basil on hand. Jeanne Dunn is hard-pressed to single out her favorite: "The opal basil is big and gorgeous," she said. She will soon begin planting African blue, an unusual variety that grows from cuttings. "It's got a purply color, and oval leaves."

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When asked why she grows basil, Stephenie Caughlin of Seabreeze Organic Farm, doesn't hesitate for a second: "Because you can't live without basil."

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