BASIL! BASIL! No, it’s not about the barmy, bigoted boss of Fawlty Towers fame but of Ocimum basilicum, the aroma-rich, ubiquitous herb that’s as tangy to the tongue as one of Sybil Fawlty’s temper tantrums is to the ear.
Gourmets will insist a tomato or pasta-based dish without the bouquet and flavour of basil is not worth savouring.
It’s strictly a tender annual and there are several sorts, including the Mexican Cinnamon basil, the compact Greek basil that reaches just 9in with white flowers, a Dark Opal basil with pinky-mauve tubes, a Thai basil known as Horapha Nanum which bears purple blooms, a Siam Queen basil with mulberry coloured bracts, Ocimum tenuiflorum, the Holy Basil with mauve, tubular flowers, lime and lemon basil, bush basil, lettuce leaved basil, and our own sweet basil producing white tubes and oval, pointed leaves which smell gorgeous when crushed.
Now a newcomer joins the basil brigade – Spicy Sabre (pictured) – presented by the Burpee Europe team for 2023 and hailed by them as “superb in its serration and sublime in its spiciness”.
Burpee’s UK press officer Francijn Suermondt says poetically of this debutante herb: “Bright green and pungently keen, the unique serrated basil leaves truly are a sight to behold.
“Flavour-wise, tongues will be tantalisingly satisfied with the distinct spicy note of the leaves, which are perfect for Asian dishes.”
Spicy Sabre, adds Fran, remains bushy and productive late into the season and is an annual that the pollinators love – as well as being a great container variety.
It will perform at its best in full sunlight, reaches 22in in height, 60in in spread and will mature in around 75 days from sowing.
I’m told by Burpee that seeds are available now from Pennard Plants, of Somerset (pennardplants.com), with additional suppliers arriving soon.
I have heard reports that basil seed germination can be “picky,” especially if sown too early. So it’s best to be patient and delay sowing until mid-April which will reduce the risk of the plantlets damping off and collapsing,
Cover the seeds very lightly, choose a specific compost rather than multi-purpose and mix in a little horticultural sharp sand. And, most important, do not overwater and do not under-water as both can lead to disastrous outcomes. The secret: Keep a watchful eye and don’t allow the seedlings to catch a chill as they are half-hardy annuals, not fully hardy.
If grown in greenhouse or on window sill, move the plants to the warmth and sunshine of outside, either in a container or a herb bed, once they are strong enough to fend for themselves.
Up to a point, basil – like Mr Fawlty – can be a challenge for the inexperienced . . . so don’t forget to employ “Manuel” dexterity to ensure you don’t get beaten by this tastebud-tingling herb.
In other words, don’t give basil the brush-off !