Basil is regarded as the king of summer herbs – and that includes the perennial varieties which have as many uses as the ever-popular sweet basil. Being perennials, they not only provide a constant supply of fresh basil leaves all year round, but become established garden shrubs. The pink and white perennial varieties never stop flowering, and their desirability as a garden flower possibly explains why they are seen as different from the annual basils
The pick of the perennials
Greek columnar basil (Ocimum basilicum spp.) grows 80 cm high and 60 cm wide, and has an upright growth habit that makes it neat and easy to cultivate; it’s perfect for small herb gardens. The crisp leaves are very aromatic and can be used fresh in salads, added to sauces, soups and pasta.
Pink perennial basil (Ocimum basilicum spp.) grows 1.5 m high and 1 m wide, and has small mottled purple-green leaves covered with very fine hairs. The spikes of lilac flowers cover the bush in summer. If given plenty of water, the leaves will be succulent and nice to eat. Without water, they can become pungent. Because the flavour is stronger than sweet basil, the leaves are preferred for cooking, such as in Italian dishes, in robust sauces, soups and stews. However, finely chopped fresh leaves can be added, along with other herbs, to emulsion-type sauces, like mayonnaise or herb aioli.
White perennial basil (Ocimum basilicum spp.) has the same growth habit as the pink perennial variety but its leaves are larger and softer, which extends its culinary uses to salads or any other dish that requires fresh salad leaves. It produces spikes of white flowers
Try this for taste!
- Finely chop dill and pink perennial basil leaves and add when making homemade mayonnaise. It can be used as a dipping sauce, as well as for fish and as a dressing for potato or pasta salad.
- The stronger taste of perennial basil leaves pairs well with Thai cuisine. Make a quick chicken stir fry with fish sauce, soy sauce, water and sugar. Towards the end of cooking, add finely chopped perennial basil leaves and chillies and toss until the leaves start to wilt.
- Make a delicious pesto with pink perennial basil and macadamia nuts instead of the traditional sweet basil and pine nuts. A teaspoon of freshly squeezed lemon juice helps to keep the green colour in the pesto.
- For a simple summer lunch, make a pesto pasta salad by combining the pesto with the pasta, using some of the water from cooking the pasta to dilute the pesto so that it becomes more like a sauce. Fold in ripe chopped tomatoes, and top with shavings of parmesan (or grana podano) cheese.
Call in the pest police
Perennial basils, like other basils, repel aphids, asparagus beetles, flies, mites, and tomato hornworms, making them good companion plants for veggies like tomatoes, beans, baby marrow, brinjals, cabbages and sweet peppers, as well as for fruit trees. The pungency of their leaves produces an excellent natural insect spray. Make a strong infusion of basil leaves and use it as a spray to drive away aphids, mites and bugs, especially those on pot plants. To displace ants, add vinegar to the tea and pour the mixture down ant holes or in-between pavers.
Perennial basils like full sun, and well-composted soil that drains well. Water regularly because they need to be consistently moist. Fertilise at least once a month with a potassium-rich fertiliser to encourage healthy leaves and plenty of flowers. Cutting off the dead flower spikes will encourage more flowers. Pinching off the growing tips of young plants will produce bushier growth.
In frosty areas plants need to be protected with frost cover or moved to a more protected area if planted in a container. A position that receives full sun, and is sheltered from wind, is best.
Five reasons to fill your garden with perennial basils
- Like lavender and rosemary, pink and white perennial basils can be used as a flowering hedge to border a pathway, edge a formal garden or surround a potager.
- Plant them at the back of flower beds to provide height or to act as a screen.
- Sweet basil, purple basil and pink perennial basil planted together is a beautiful combination of differently coloured leaves, united by spikes of typical basil flowers in white, pink and lilac.
- Pollinators, especially bees and butterflies, love perennial pink basil and their presence encourages biodiversity in the garden.
- They are reputed to improve the flavour of the veggies and fruit planted nearby. In the flower garden they are good companions for lilies and other bulbous plants.
Did you know?
Basil added to the bathwater will leave you feeling invigorated, especially after a hard day’s digging in the garden. Add a strong infusion of leaves (equal parts of leaves to water and steeped for 20 minutes) to the bath water.
Sip a cup of basil tea two or three times a day to improve digestion, alleviate anxiety and fatigue, or help you to sleep. To make the tea, pour just-boiled water over a third of a cup of fresh basil leaves and let it steep for 5-10 minutes. Cover the cup so the essential oils do not evaporate, then strain and sip.