All hail Basil, the undisputed King of Herbs

All hail Basil, the undisputed King of Herbs

A (rather long) while ago, I introduced all of you to my Zen Garden:

Zen Garden circa May 2012

It doesn’t look like that anymore.

For one, it now resembles a jungle (albeit a well-kept one) more than a garden:
with 7 sweet basil plants, 2 Thai basils, 1 each of cinnamon & lemon basil; 4 rosemary bush-lings; 3 French tarragon stick-lings; 3 thyme crawlies; 2 healthy dill weeds; 1 generous flat parsley & coriander each; 1 overhanging oregano; and 1 overgrown sage — amongst others.

But I am not here to boast.
OK lar, maybe slightly…

A long time ago, I realised that the only way for me to achieve the results that I craved for in the kitchen,
was to have full (or partial) control of the ingredients that I put into my pot (or pan… or wok… or oven… you get the picture).
While I won’t be able to breed my own chickens, catch my own salmon, or grain feed & massage my own cows anytime soon,
I have been able to achieve some success with herbs and vegetable produce. Remember my lil’ runt of a potato?!

And one plant / herb that I am eternally grateful for, for learning how to grow well, is basil.

Basil @thenyonyacelup

What is basil?

The name of the herb comes from the Greek word for king:  βασιλεύς (basileus);
and its royalty is alluded to yet again by its French title:  l’herbe royale.

Those familiar with Western Italian cooking will instantly recognise & associate its name with this plant:

Pot of sweet basil which started out as cuttings

Sweet basil
Ocimum basilicum

You would however, only be partially right,
because there actually are over 160 named basil cultivars
(not counting the unnamed chap cheng “accidents” — which I will talk about below)!
In China, the local cultivar is known as jiǔ céng tǎ 九層塔 and Thailand has its own horapha โหระพา. The Indians know theirs as holy basil @ tulsi तुलसी and the Malays & Indonesians refer to it as pokok selasih kemangi respectively.

Other cultivars include:

Red basil

Red basil
Flavour similiar to that of sweet basil & can be substituted accordingly.
Adds colour to salad
& makes for an appealing garnish
Though it looks suspiciously like purple, IMHO…

Lemon & Thai basil

L: Lemon basil
Because it smells & tastes lemony. *doh* 🙂
Leaves are the smallest of the lot.

I suspect this is the kemangi the Indonesians speak about.
Can be added to salads & ulam for a mild *twang*
R: Horapha โหระพา @ Thai basil
Described as tasting like licorice;
not that I know what licorice tastes like. 😀
Great with green curries, phở & ulam.

Cinammon basil

Cinnamon basil
Because it smell & taste (unmistakably) like cinnamon.
Leaves are purple veined & flowers are purple.
I have read that it can be used as a substitute for cinnamon in drinks & such,
but I have no personal experience.
I plant it for decorative value.
And also because I’m anal about having a “complete” basil collection.

I unfortunately do not have my own picture of the mother-of-all-basils: holy basil @ tulsi तुलसी.
Its uses are mainly ayurvedic.

Speaking of… believe it or not
and most Malaysians that I dispense gardening advice to actually have a problem accepting this —
the basil plant is actually native to India & the tropics!
A fact worth remembering when you’re attempting to plant it.

Now, why would anyone go through the trouble of digging, planting, fertilising & watering (and really, that’s pretty much all there is to it)
when you can get dried basil flakes or even pre-packed leaves at your local grocer?

Well, if there is only one herb that you can plant, let it be this: because NOTHING can replace taste of fresh basil.

The aromatics in this herb are so volatile that anything more than a few hours of (unspecialised) storage, or a few minutes of cooking,
will SEVERELY impair its taste.
Pre-packed basil leaves taste like spinach, for one; and dried basil, well that doesn’t even taste like anything worth eating.
If you’ve ever eaten pesto & wondered *meh*, it was probably made with stale basil leaves.

And besides, basil is SO EASY to grow, why on earth would you wanna keep buying it when your garden will supply it for almost free?!

How to grow?

*NOTE: The NyonyaCelup lives in a country that  recieves nothing but sunshine & rain all year round.
Gardening advice for other weathers will differ slightly & I am not qualified to give it.

Basil plants in pots

Ground / Pot?

  • Basil will do well either way;
    though you will undoubtedly get a more vigorous bush with bigger leaves if you ground them,
    potting gives you the added advantage of being able to “chase the sun” as it changes its position annually.
  • Space well — 15-20 cm from the next plant is the minimum — as they will branch out & grow vertically, IF you’re doing it right.
  • Basil will grow well in almost any kind of black soil.
Bushy basil

My mama always told me that if I shaved, the hair would just keep growing back thicker…

Plant-ling / Seed / Cutting?

  • The basil plant swings all ways here as well:

    Plant— Usually the best option for beginners. In Malaysia, nurseries that stock baby basil that haven’t already bolted (flowered) are hard to come by. I just go ahead and visit the nearest Cold Storage to pick up a pot @ RM 5.99

    Cuttings — Good option if you have a friend with some spare basil lying around. Also a good method for you to expand your own basil plantation, since the plant needs regular pruning. Basil cuttings root UNBELIEVABLY EASY. If you have a habit of composting with your plant clippings, make sure to chop your basil up before chucking into the soil. How else do you think I ended up with seven pots of it?!
    Seed — If you / a friend are (un)fortunate to have allowed a previous plant to bolt. Sow & cover with 1-2 cm of soil; will germinate in ≈ 1 week. A note about bolting basil for seed, they’re quite hippy & free luvin’ and will crossbreed happily amongst cultivars. If you want to keep your strains pure, make sure you don’t have all your different varieties flowering at the same time. But if you want to experiment with funky looking & tasting basil, be my guest. Basil seeds are also very light & travel well with the wind. If you’re not careful, you’ll end up with more than you bargained for…

Basil cuttings

These cuttings grew into that pot of sweet basil that you first saw waaaaaay up there…

Basil seedlings

Basil seedlings
These were some pretty cool chap chengs:
leaves as big as sweet basil with purple veins & flowers
and tasted quite funky.


  • #1 mistake: owners who keep their basil under a porch / indoors. There is this myth that basil, by virtue of its association with Western cooking, needs Western weather.
  • But as I mentioned earlier, basil originated from India & the tropics.
    So, because of its tropical roots, BASIL NEEDS FULL SUN.
    I cannot stress that enough.
  • Pick a spot. If you’re comfortable standing there in mid afternoon, go put your basil someplace sunnier.

Don’t drown me

  • Another common mistake I see happening is owners who drown their basil plants.
  • Basil likes its soil moist but well drained.
  • If your baby basil starts drooping in mid afternoon, try not to resort to putting a tray underneath — this is a disastrous recipe for root rot with inexperienced gardeners.
    Instead, get a bigger plastic (terra cotta pots evaporate water faster) pot & water in the mornings.
  • Mulching also helps reduce water loss through evaporation.
  • Once your basil starts getting bigger, it will safely last through the afternoon without much problem.

I need a haircut

  • The secret to a bushy basil plant?
    Regular use.
  • Unless you’re not very fond of your plant, and would like to see it die slowly, DO NOT ALLOW YOUR BASIL TO BOLT.
    Once that happens, your plant takes it as a signal that its purpose in life has been fulfilled & it will start:
    – becomming woody, and
    – producing smaller leaves (& eventually none) with little or almost no flavour subsequently.
    * Although, if you have allowed this to happen by accident, fret not. Basil leaves are actually most fragrant during the flowering, so you can harvest them for a really strong pesto. Just remember to leave enough on the tree to sustain the plant while the flowers turn into seeds (flower → dried seed ≈ 2 weeks +)
    ** I also know of people who actually prefer the subtler taste of leaves from a bolted plant & will keep their plants that way. Just remember to harvest the seeds to prevent them from scattering around your garden.
  • How to cut?
    – Well, once your basil has achieved a height of 3-4 storeys of leaves, you can pinch off the top most leaves, leaving 2 storeys of leaves behind.
    – The plant automatically converts the 2 adjoining leaflets into new branches.
    – Keep doing this & your basil will grow horizontally instead of vertically, prolonging its life.
Pruning basil

Leaflets (marked by arrows) which will grow into new branches.
I hope the instructions are clear…

Basil plant next to a tomato plant

2 years & counting
As you can see from the leaves, this has attempted to bolt more than a few times…
Note the (unfortunately) leggy tomato plant next to it? 😉

Basil plant

Slightly under 2 years old.
She was almost written off because she’d become so woody after accidental bolting.
But she just kept coming back with more!

Feed me!

  • My gardening practices are not organic, so I have no problems in using hormone-infused chemical fertilisers.
    Though I mulch regularly with the plant’s own clippings.
    You’re welcome to use compost.

Don’t bug me!

  • Like all plants, basil is susceptible to common garden pests: i.e. mealybugs, aphids, etc.
    I spray regularly with a neem-based repellant for prophylaxis, but I am not beneath pesticide erradication for a serious infestation.
    I then stop eating from the plant for a month or so.
  • Basil is also prone to Fusarium sp. infection. I avoid it by not composting / reusing soil from infected plants.

I get by with a lil’ help from my friends…

  • Basil has long been known as a good companion crop for tomatoes.
    Something about the smell from basil disguising the tomatoes from its common pests
    & also making them sweeter.
    I plant my own tomatoes in between pots of basil — and I’ve never had pest problems & they really are the sweetest tomatoes I’ve ever tasted.

Can I store?

  • Unlike people living in temperate countries, we near the equator don’t actually need to think about storing our basil:
    if it produces too much, just chop off & mulch,
    because (if your sun exposure is right), you’ll get another great harvest in a week or so.
  • But if you must store your basil, I find that the best method is to:
    – place them in a cup of water, if you plan to use it in the short term; or
    – freeze them in ice (though the leaves will turn black when you take it out later).

So, I hope my post helped.
Sorry it’s so long, I can’t help myself.

I’ll be back next with a ridiculously simple pesto recipe.

Love, The NyonyaCelup

5 responses »

  1. Pingback: Pesto Mesto « The NyonyaCelup

  2. Hi! I am from Kota Kinabalu, Sabah and it’s really blazing hot nowadays.
    I am so glad to find your blog on planting basil in malaysia.
    I have germinated sweet basil seeds easily but they never grow bigger past the seedling stage.
    My seeds are from Australia.
    Do they need FULL SUN when they are at seedling stage?
    I am very wary about so many sources on the internet that says Basil loves FULL sun but the full sun in western countries are less humid than the full sun we have here.
    And is it crucial to transplant each basil seedling to at least 15cm apart? I think this is my problem but then i have seen sweet basil plants growing big CROWDED in a pot in Perth.
    Help! Would really love to grow some sweet basil successfully.
    I bought a bigger seedling from a nursery and set it in a sunny position in my office porch and I think after one day, it was FRIED. So when is FULL SUN good and how much?
    People tell me that growing basil is super easy but apparently not to me (don’t have green thumb!).
    Thanks! I think I have also been over watering my basil.

    • Hehe. People forget that basil is actually not “Western” per se – it’s a Mediterranean plant. Which means that it can take pretty hot temperatures.

      Just remember to water it frequently (early morning is best to avoid burning of leaves [afternoon water] or fungal rot [night water]). If it’s really too hot in the afternoon and your young ones look a little droopy, you can plant them in slight shade / give them another sprinkle before night falls.
      But my basil has never had problem in the brightest of sun.

      Basil can grow when it is crowded in a pot, but the less space your roots have to grow, the smaller the final size of the plant.

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