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Herbs : GARDEN FRESH : How Blue Was My Basil

June 17, 1993|SYLVIA THOMPSON

Sometimes I remember that the herbs we cook with are, after all, just leaves--leaves of plants that might be weeds but for their enticing aroma and flavor. The rue that ancient Greeks and medieval Arabs stirred into stew pots tastes acrid and smells "phewy" to most of us now.

But I like to ponder about how these leaves came to their elevated culinary position. Who first plucked the gray-green leaves whose smoky nip scented the air of the Mediterranean plain, laid them on roasted boar and found the meat twice as pleasing--the leaves we know as sage? Who first nibbled on fine blue-green leaves growing from a crevice on a steppe, found their taste warm and even heady and combined them with a roasted egg--the leaves of dill? And who, pulling cow peas from their vines beneath the African sun, remembered the spicy aroma after brushing by a small bush and threw some of its leaves into a basket while cooking the pods--leaves of basil?

Of the many leaves we Americans love to mix into our dishes, only a handful are appreciated around the world. Parsley, cilantro and mint are, but not rosemary, tarragon or thyme. Basil is.

That is to say, basil in its many forms. I've read there are 40, most of them cultivars of sweet basil. Their leaves may be as tiny as a raindrop or as big as the palm of your hand. Their texture may be dull or shiny, crinkled or smooth, their flavor peppery or lemony or reminiscent of anise, cinnamon or clove. Their color may be light or lime or dark green, or maroon or purple. Or blue.

Well, not really blue. Blue is such an alluring word when it comes to the garden that sometimes it's applied with wishful thinking. No harm done. Blue basil is a stunning leaf--warm green veined with royal purple on top, and green brushed with purple underneath.

The plant is a hybrid, a cross between richly purple opal basil and camphor basil that can grow five feet tall. The strongly scented camphor basil is native to Uganda and Tanzania (its botanical name honors Mt. Kilimanjaro). I'm not sure about its use in Africa, but camphor basil is used in Indian Vedic cuisine with vegetables, pulses and rice.

Blue basil's flavor isn't strong. Rather it's close to that of opal basil, but less peppery and more musky. I know "ifs" are silly, but if I had to choose just one basil for my garden, it would be blue. Given full sun and rich, well-drained soil, it grows lickety-split into a knee-high bush that's many-branched, with purple stems and (edible) purple flowers, glorious in the border--especially among yellow, gold and orange calendulas.

But that's not all. Here is a basil that, although it was born of two plants that behave as annuals, can be perennial. It withers in frost, so if frost threatens in autumn, dig up the plant, turn it into a pot and bring it indoors for the winter. Give basil sunshine from a southern or western window, but if it starts looking spindly, augment the sunlight with fluorescent light. Basil needs 16 hours of light a day.

Actually, blue basil can live in a container all year. Particularly if your summers are cool and there's a modicum of sunshine, setting basil in a dark container against a bright wall in what there is of it can mean the difference between a sullen plant and a happy one. As soon as the roots fill the container (every so often, gently tip the plant out of the pot, and if you see roots scrambling over the soil, it's time), repot into something a couple of inches wider and a couple of inches deeper.

Ultimately, blue basil should be in a 10-gallon tub. Note that plastic containers require less water than ceramic, and basil wants water. A mulch of sphagnum moss--the wispy stuff that looks as though elves nest in it--conserves water and gives a lovely finish. Or cover the surface with small stones for warmth. Early in spring, refresh the top third of potting mix and cut back one-fourth to one-third of the roots on the bottom.

Whether in soil or potting mix, keep basil on the moist side. Blue basil doesn't need more than spritzing with half-strength kelp emulsion twice in summer (too much fertilizer affects the essences in the leaves, reducing intensity of flavor). And nip off buds--the production of flowers reduces strength, tenderness and flavor of leaves. Watch for slugs.

The Peter Borchards of Companion Plants, who claim the hybrid as their own, have been taking cuttings from their original plant for eight years. Imagine never being out of fresh basil!

When you harvest--and you can, any time--pick the stalk just above the point where two stalks branch out from it. That's called pinching, and every time you do that, two stalks will grow in each place, making the plant bushier and bushier. Stalks will keep fresh in water in a cool place for a day or two.

And when you're pinching, sometimes try to imagine the one who first tasted basil leaves on a sunny day in Africa.

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