Wonderful, tasty, close to divine: Basil

S-E Reporter

Used to be spaghetti was red. Then along came green, and a whole new world opened up for fans of the humble noodle: suddenly, it was “where’s basil been all my life?!”

Right now easy-to-grow basil is inundating gardeners. Beyond basil pesto anytime they want -- such luxury! – there’s also the option to pick it and freezer it for a fresh taste later. Or, just before a killing frost, dig up a few plants for a sunny windowsill pot.

Beyond being magical for the taste buds, it turns out basil can also do wonders for your health.

It’s high in vitamin K, an essential for utilizing calcium for bone health; K also helps with proper blood clotting. Other boosts scientists have found from basil:
>It soothes inflammation (which can lead to things like atherosclerosis, periodontitis, hay fever).
> Studies of rats show it can treat and even heal arthritis.
>Basil’s essential oils inhibit viruses, yeasts and bacterial growth.
>As an antioxidant basil neutralizes free radicals, repairs damaged molecules and protects organs and cells from deterioration.
>Basil is credited with preventing the spread of malignant cells and can work to create the death of harmful cells. As well, basil is found to protect normal cells during chemo and radiation treatments.
>It’s used in India to prevent and treat diabetes.
>Basil extract is used to protect against liver disease.
>As an adaptogen, Holy Basil is shown to enhance energy, strength, stamina and mental clarity.
>Rabbits fed basil for stress reduction (two grams a day for a month) showed measurably less stress as well improved cardiovascular health, lower blood sugar levels and less oxidative stress.
>The manganese in basil promotes healthy metabolism and is good for the thyroid. Manganese can also ward off Irritable Bowel Disease and constipation. Since PMS is linked to low manganese, basil may help.
>For the eyes, basil has beta-carotene.
>Basil also has vitamin C, iron, calcium, folate, magnesium and omega three fats.

This is not to say basil is a wonder cure for everyone. Caution in its use is called for if one has low blood sugar or low blood pressure, or is taking drugs for those conditions.

One of the biggest plusses of basil is that it’s a relatively fuss-free plant -- as long as it’s not exposed to frost, which kills it. A ground temperature of 70 degrees is ideal for planting. For a jump on the season, basil can be started indoors. Some even allow stems to go to root in water, then transplant them. Basil will flourish with lots of water and at least six hours of sunlight daily. Weeding prevents smothering. Planted in a row, basil can be thinned to 12 inches apart; the thinnings can be used for pesto or in salads.

For companion planting, basil appreciates the company of tomatoes, lettuce, peppers and oregano. It does have some bug-deterring qualities, but is not immune to pests such as aphids, slugs or Japanese beetles. Basil is said to be toxic to mosquitoes.

Harvest can be continual: pinch the leaves off at their stem, and more leaves will keep the plant in the game. Leave at least a third of the leaves on the plant. When flower buds appear, snip them off to keep up leaf production.

Inundated with basil? It’s a no-fuss process to pick the leaves, rinse them (salad spinners make it easier), then bag them and pop them in the freezer. Use the leaves for winter pesto or add to soups or sauces.

Row cover, well secured around a patch of basil, will prevent frost damage. When the frosts threaten to be more severe, it’s easy to dig up a few plants and repot them for a south-facing windowsill. From there, if the flowers are allowed to go to seed, they are easy to collect and can be saved to start next summer’s basil crop.

There are about 150 varieties of basil, some that grow into large plants, some that are compact, each with their own distinct basil taste.

Budget-friendly basil pesto, for two: No pricey pine nuts required. In a blender put a half cup of olive oil (a third of that can be replaced with water), a half cup of parmesan cheese, a quarter cup of walnuts, two cloves of garlic (cut into pieces so it blends better), and a teaspoon of black pepper. Begin a low-speed blending and add, a little at a time, one cup of packed basil leaves, which can include some parsley. Blend until smooth and use with noodles. Noodle quantity is an individual matter. Some prefer more pesto than noodles. Another option for using pesto is to mix it with sour cream or cream cheese to create a cracker spread.

Can one overdo basil consumption? While it officially has “no known side effects,” it is powerful enough that, until more is known, conventional medicine calls for avoiding it during pregnancy and breastfeeding. If one eats Holy Basil, they are advised to quit eating it two weeks before surgery. And there is the possibility of allergy, which can make itself known by a rash, swelling, itching, dizziness or impaired breathing

Sources: 21 science-backed health benefits of basil, well-beingsecrets.com; Medicalnewstoday.com; ncbi.n/m.gov/pubmed, various bulletins; arthritis.org; pnas.org; Swiss Federal Institute of Technology; India’s Azad University of Agriculture, regarding diabetes; and askdocweb.com.