Basil Beyond the Box

American gardeners have grown basil as a helpful culinary herb for centuries, and no doubt it will be extensively planted yet again this spring. But because of its history in this country that stretches back to Colonial times, the urge to confine basil into neat, square plots reminiscent of a Williamsburg herb patch is great.

However, maybe it is time to distance basil away from what was and explore new ways to show off this useful plant.

Sweet basil is the common variety grown by many gardeners, but there are many other selections, and some of them are quite pretty — so  much so that if they were considered ornamental as well as edible, new planting possibilities emerge.

Need examples? Below are a few alternative varieties and suggestions to help break basil out of its Colonial box.

Thai Basil. Here is a handsome plant. Its green leaves are supported on purple stems and topped by small sprites of equally purple blossoms. Growing up to a foot tall, this is a candidate to grab attention on the front of an annual ornamental bed. In the kitchen, Thai basil’s spicy, anise-like flavor makes it a must in many Asian dishes.

Cinnamon Basil. If you like the look of Thai basil but want to make a bolder statement, plant cinnamon basil, which looks similar with purple-ish stems and flowers but stretches upward to 30 inches tall, making it a possibility for the back of a flower border. True to its name, this basil has a taste similar to cinnamon, and it is a popular addition to Asian and Italian recipes as well as fruit dishes.

Cardinal Basil. Want even bolder? Going to the next level in flower power, in addition to also having red stems and a 30-inch reach to the sky, cardinal basil sports impressive reddish-purple blooms that are large enough to fool unsuspecting gardeners into thinking they just passed a spicy-scented celosia. This basil will hold its own in any ornamental border, but give it a try in indoor cut arrangements, too. While admiring the flowers, don’t forget that the tangy leaves are perfect for pesto, soups and Italian dishes.

Purple Ruffles Basil. Any ornamental bed will benefit visually from this dark basil, as it will poke playful, shadowy holes in landscapes usually dominated by botanical green. Growing to 2 feet high or more, it can create impressive swaths of deep purple to help make brightly colored flowers and dazzling variegated foliage pop even more. This basil tends to have a milder flavor than other basils, which makes it a tasty possibility for sandwiches or salads. Also, the dusky leaves can be used to put a pretty purple tint in bottles of herb vinegar.  

Lemon Basil. While it is a uniform green and, when compared to the other basils mentioned, might not be a real looker, lemon basil still deserves a prime spot in a container on any sunny deck or porch. Why? It is as advertised — a  puckery little punch of lemon that will enhance outdoor relaxing with a leaf or two invigorating a glass of iced tea on a hot summer day. More of a margarita maker? Grow lime basil instead.

Most of these basils can probably be found locally as starter plants this spring with some searching, but if you would rather spend more time planting than hunting as the weather warms up, seeds of all of these varieties and many more can be found online now — and  basil is very easy to start from seed.

Finally, if any of these basils are going to be mixed in the landscape with ornamentals, and you plan to use pesticides this growing season, make sure they are safe to apply on edible plants first.

L.A. Jackson is the former editor of Carolina Gardener Magazine. Want to ask L.A. a question about your garden? Contact him by email at

Timely Tip

If you didn’t add time-release bulb fertilizer to perennial spring-blooming bulbs such as hyacinths, crocuses, daffodils and species tulips last fall, when their shoots begin pushing out of the ground this year, give them a light application of a complete fertilizer such as 8-8-8 or 10-10-10.

The oomph to create this spring’s fabulous flower show has already been saved in the bulbs, but adding this extra shot of nutrients stimulates better foliage formation, which then absorbs more energy from the sun and transfers it down to the bulbs to be stored for next year’s blossom-fest.


To Do in the Garden: February

  • A dormant oil spray on branches and trunks to smother overwintering eggs and larvae of such pests as scale and mites is a good way to help curb spring and summer outbreaks against susceptible ornamental and fruit trees. Just remember that it is better to spray on a day when the temperature is expected to remain above 40 degreesF.
  • Keep the spent blooms of camellias raked up to discourage camellia petal blight. Do not compost the fallen petals.
  • If you brought any plants indoors for the winter, keep watch on them for pest proliferation. In the cozy confines of a house, the dry heat can make such undesirables as mealy bugs, white flies and spider mites want to come out and play.  
  • On mild days, visit regional arboretums as well as local nurseries with display gardens to see what kinds of sassy conifers and other evergreens they are using to liven up their outdoor beds with cold-weather interest and color.
  • Keep the bird bath free of ice during the severely cold times and continue to add fresh water each week.

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