Basil (Ocimum basilicum, Family: Lamiaceae), also known as St. Joseph’s Wort, originated in Asia, but just where in Asia is not known. It could have been as far east as the Hunan region of China. The most ancient record we have of it refers to cultivation in the Ganges Valley in India over 5000 years ago. It spread from there along the ancient trade routes by seed and plants to Egypt where it was used as an embalming and preserving herb in mummies.
Basil was known in Greece in ancient times. A great legend grew up around it that it was the cure for the bite of the dragon-like creature known as a Basilisk. This creature was supposed to have the head of a rooster, the body of a serpent, and the wings of a bat. Basil was said to be the only cure for its bite as well as its withering breath, which could kill plants and animals. Legend also had it that anyone who looked the Basilisk in the eyes would instantly die.
Basil came to America via the Massachusetts Bay Colony where it was introduced in 1621. From there its cultivation spread among the colonies. It has long been used to flavor food in the western world, but was used primarily for its aroma in India. Today it is most recognized for its influence in Italian and Thai cooking.
Most varieties of Basil are green, but there are some that have grayish, purple or red leaves. The flowers on some plants can vary in color as well, although the most common flower color is white. All varieties of this herb are perfect for a basic herb garden. Multiple varieties with their distinctive colors, size and leaf shape can create an aesthetically pleasing display. Each variety will bring its own unique combination of color and flavor into your garden and kitchen.
Report prepared by Frederick (Ted) Atwood, St. Louis Herb Society