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Literary Gardener: Basil, a beneficial herb with a bit of the bizarre

“Parkinson tells us that being gently handled (basil) gave a pleasant smell, but being hardly wrung and bruised would breed scorpions.”

— Mrs. M. Grieve, “A Modern Herbal,” 1931

The idea that basil (ocimum basilicum) breeds scorpions is just one of many bizarre stories about this herb.

According to Mrs. Grieve, the respected English herbalist and botanist John Parkinson (1567-1660) observed, “Scorpions do much rest and abide under these pots and vessels wherein basil is planted.”

The relationship between basil and scorpions probably originated from the fact that basil was once used to treat scorpion stings. In fact, some believe the name basil is derived from “basilisk,” a mythological serpent-like creature that was said to kill with a single look or poisonous breath.

Native to warm climates of southeast Asia and India, the basil plant has been cultivated for more than 4,000 years for culinary, medicinal and ceremonial uses. In ancient Egypt, it was used as an embalming herb. Ancient Greeks called it “basilikon phuton” — the herb of kings — and used it as a symbol of mourning.

In addition, basil has been used among various cultures to determine a person’s chastity (by withering in the hands of the impious); indicate fertility; ward off evil spirits and bring divine blessings for family wellness; give strength during fasting; express affection to a lover; cheer the spirits; pay respect to a departed loved one; and heal all manner of ailments from infections to anxiety.

All of which confirms what many gardeners already know: basil is a beneficial herb. Many varieties are available, growing from 12 to 20 inches tall and wide: dwarf-leaved Greek basil, large lettuce-leaved sweet basil, purple-leaved basil, lemon, cinnamon and clove-scented basil, tree basil and holy basil, also called tulsi (an important element of Ayurveda medicine and Hindu religion).

All basils are aromatic tender perennials, most often grown as an annual in our area. Along with rosemary, sage and lavender, basil is a member of the large mint family. It’s fun to grow an assortment of basils with contrasting foliage in colors of deep green, golden-green and purple-almost-black, and textures that range from smooth and glossy to bumpy.

Not only is basil attractive to butterflies and bees, the oil it produces repels many insect pests. It’s a good companion plant for asparagus, beans, beets, cabbage, peppers, eggplant, potatoes, tomatoes, garlic and onions. It also grows well with ornamental flowers.

Sow basil seeds through mid-May indoors in compostable pots, as this herb resents transplanting, or wait until nighttime temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees. To sow directly into the garden bed. Another option is to plant basil in a container where it will make its permanent home on a windowsill or other sunny location.

Basil likes loose, moist soil amended with compost. I add organic fertilizer when planting basil out in the garden and every month for container plants. Basil will wither in the heat, so provide morning sunshine and some afternoon shade. When plants are 6 inches tall, pinch off the tops for bushier, more productive plants. Avoid over-fertilizing, as this decreases the oils that give basil its pungent fragrance and flavor.

Harvest the leaves frequently by using clean scissors to cut just above a growth node on the stem. At the end of summer, it may be worth a try to cut the plant back to a few inches above the soil line to encourage a second crop before frost. Allow some plants to flower and collect the seeds for next season, or grow indoors during the winter.

In her herbal book, Mrs. Grieve notes that 16th century physicians warned against copious smelling of basil lest scorpions breed in one’s brain. I think those doctors were simply trying to take all the joy out of life. My advice is to grow, and smell, as much basil as possible.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, visit her blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/.