Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Basil

BasilBasil, an annual herb of the order Labiatæ. The popular name, derived from the specific, signifies royal or kingly, probably because of the plant's use in feasts. In France it is known as herb royale, royal herb. The generic name is derived from Oza, a Greek word signifying odor.

The plant is a native of tropical Asia, where for centuries, especially in India, it has been highly esteemed as a condiment. Probably the early Greek and Roman writers were well acquainted with it, but commentators are not decided. They suppose that the Okimon of Hippocrates, Dioscorides and Theophrastus is the same as Ocimum hortense of Columella and Varro.

The plant's introduction into England was about 1548, or perhaps a little earlier, but probably not prior to 1538, because Turner does not mention it in his "Libellus," published in that year. It seems to have grown rapidly in popularity, for in 1586 Lyte speaks of it as if well known. In America it has been cultivated somewhat for about a century partly because of its fragrant leaves which are employed in bouquets, but mainly for flavoring culinary concoctions. In Australia it is also more or less grown, and in countries where French commerce or other interests have penetrated it is well known.

There are several related species which, in America less than in Europe or the East, have attracted attention. The most important of these is dwarf or bush basil (O. minimum, Linn.), a small Chilian species also reported from Cochin China. It was introduced into cultivation in Europe in 1573. On account of its compact form it is popular in gardens as an edging as well as a culinary herb, for more than a century it has been grown in America. Sacred basil (O. sanctum), an oriental species, is cultivated near temples in India and its odoriferous oil extracted for religious uses. Formerly the common species was considered sacred by the Brahmins who used it especially in honor of Vishnu and in funeral rites. An African species, O. fruticosum, is highly valued at the Cape of Good Hope for its perfume.

From the small, fibrous roots the square stems stand erect about 1 foot tall. They are very branching and leafy. The leaves are green, except as noted below, ovate, pointed, opposite, somewhat toothed, rather succulent and highly fragrant. The little white flowers which appear in midsummer are racemed in leafy whorls, followed by small black fruits, popularly called seeds. These, like flaxseed, emit a mucilaginous substance when soaked in water. About 23,000 weigh an ounce, and 10 ounces fill a pint. Their vitality lasts about eight years.

The dwarf species is more compact, branching and dainty than the common species. It has three varieties; one with deep violet foliage and stems and lilac white flowers, and two with green leaves, one very dense and compact.

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