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Sensuous herb

Basil a symbol for many cultures, and sure sign of summer

In The Cooking of Italy, Waverly Root writes that "In the days when the great galleons toiled painfully home, beating their zigzag courses against the off-shore breezes in the Gulf of Genoa, their first hint of land was the wind-carried scent of sweet basil from Liguria. The sailors knew then that the green hills above Genoa, carpeted with aromatic herbs, would soon heave into sight."

Romantic as this recollection is, it is nonetheless correct in how beautifully distracting the fragrance of anise, mint, clove, citrus and hyacinth combine to form Basil’s unique aroma and taste.

I was surprised to find that there are many different basil species (30 to 150, depending on who is counting), each with their own characteristic smell and taste. Interestingly, the history surrounding this herb is as varied.

The botanical name for basil is Ocimum basilicum . Ocimum comes from the Greek word Okimon, meaning smell, while basilicum is derived from Greek basilikon, meaning King; only a royal was allowed to cut the sweet herb and then only with an instrument forged from a noble metal; iron being too elementary for the task.

The Emperor Constantine’s (A.D. 306 to 337) mother is said to have been led by smell to a patch of basil growing over the remains of the cross on which Christ was crucified. The plant, through this association, became a symbol of grief and redemption in those times.

In India it is also considered a sacred plant and even today the Hindu grow basil to remember departed loved ones.

Basil is considered a symbol of love in Italy, albeit with varied interpretations of the word. Pinned to a young girl’s clothing, a basil leaf proclaims chastity. Lovers exchange basil as a token of fidelity. A pot of basil set out on the windowsill serves as a signal that a woman is ready to entertain her lover. In Tuscany, it is believed that basil possesses erotic potency.

I bought a few small basil plants in the spring with the hope that the mid-summer plant would provide me with fresh, aromatic leaves for endless tomato salads and pasta with pesto. Alas, slugs love basil just as much as we do and when I went to water my precious plants they had been devoured down to soil level. Researching for this article I discovered that an easy way (although a little pricey) to deter these gastropods is to encircle the soil bed with a 10 cm high copper sheeting fence. The copper acts as a little electric fence for slugs, creating a non-lethal electrical charge to their soft bodies on contact. A less expensive option is to surround the plant’s base with broken egg shells. Basil also protects tomato plants against whiteflies and gnats, making for a good garden companion.


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