Basil – Ocimum basilicum – organic growing advice, history, preserving and medicinal – by Andy Hamilton

Basil with Basil
Basil with Basil

Basil is a half hardy annual. Its name is derived from the Greek basileus meaning King as it was seen to have a royal fragrance. It can be used to flavour foods and is used mainly with tomato, although it can also be used in salads, to flavour vinegar, to complement egg dishes and sometimes in teas. Basil was once considered to belong to the Devil and was used in a remedy against witches.


Basil originates from Africa and Asia and was thought to have been another one of the herbs that Alexander the great brought to Greece in about 350 BC. It’s journey to the UK can be dated back to around 1500 where it travel from India.

One of the varieties of Basil, Holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum) is sacred in the Hindu religion. The goddess, Tulasi is thought to have manifested into the plant. A widely known version of this legend states that, “Tulasi was tricked into betraying her husband when she was seduced by the god Vishnu in the guise of her husband. In her torment, Tulasi killed herself, and Vishnu declared that she would be “worshipped by women for her faithfulness” and would keep women from becoming widows . Thus, holy basil, which also goes by the common name Tulsi, an obvious reference to the goddess, became a Hindu symbol of love, eternal life, purification and protection.

Basil is a worshiper of hot weather, and it should never be grown outdoors if there is any chance of a frost.In Northern Europe,the Northern US states and the North Island of New Zealand it will grow best if sown under glass in a peat pot then planted out in late spring/early summer (when there is little chance of a frost). It fairs the best in a well-drained sunny spot.

Although basil will grow best outdoors it can be grown indoors in a pot and like most herbs will do best on a south facing windowsill. It should be kept away from any drafts and must be able to get plenty of sunlight, therefore a greenhouse or cloche would be ideal if you have them.

basil grown from seedI always grow some basil in pots from seed, this year I have plants growing all over the place and in with my tomatoes, the flavour is apparently better when you grow both together as it’s June I am still awaiting my first tomato so cannot possibly comment.

I use a good compost and lightly watered it every day. I  pick the leaves when the shoots are 20cm tall (about 7 inches) as this is when they are strong enough to allow for picking.

In sunnier climates such as Southern Europe, the southern US states, the South Island of New Zealand, and Australia, Basil will thrive when planted outside. It will need regular watering but not as much attention as is needed in other climates. Nev Sweeney, our self sufficiency guru states that he has great big bushes of the stuff, I am jealous.


Basil leaves can be preserved by packing in jars of olive oil and then used in cooking dishes. Stick a load of the leaves in a glass bottle (the amount depends on how strong you want the flavour to be), then top up with the oil. Leave in a sunny position for two weeks and shake every now and then. The bottles can look quite pretty and you might want to consider giving them as gifts.

Basil can also be frozen, put in a plastic bag, seal and label then place in the freezer.

To dry basil hang upside down in the a room that will stay at 20-30°c for about 2 days. They can also be dried in the microwave but as I don’t own one and think they are the work of the devil (only joking). Stick them in for about 30 seconds at a time until dry. The process should take about 3 mins tops.


Use internally to aid relief from colds, influenza, stomach cramps, nausea, migraine, insomnia, low spirits and exhaustion. Also see our book for a recipe to make a basil deodorant.

Very Easy Basil recipe

One of my favourite dishes uses basil and is very simple to make. I feel that as Basil looses much of it flavour in cooking it should be enjoyed raw wheneven possible. Cut up 3 medium tomatoes, a medium block of buffalo mozzarella or feta cheese (75g) and some pitted green olives drizzle some olive oil over the top and serve.

By Andy Hamilton

Andy Hamilton
Andy Hamilton

1 Comment on Basil – Ocimum basilicum – organic growing advice, history, preserving and medicinal – by Andy Hamilton

  1. Hi Andy!

    Love your comments on Basil, (and on the evils of microwaves…) I am a classically trained herbalist and will pass on a small useful piece of wisdom for drying fresh herbs quickly. Switch the 40W bulb in your oven for a 100W bulb. Place herbs to be dried on a cookie sheet on paper towels or a clean cloth. Turn on light. Close oven door. Usually Basil and other tender leaved plants will be perfectly dry if left overnight. If not, turn herbs over and leave them in a little longer.

    Wish me luck. Growing Basil for the first time indoors.

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