Tuesday, June 17, 2014

my favorite basil, plus one

One plant I try to buy every year is African Blue Basil.  I couldn't find it locally this year (though I didn't go to the big Memphis Botanic Gardens plant sale, where I'm sure I could have gotten it), so I ordered two tiny plants from ebay.  They arrived as plugs in two inch pots in late April, but now they're 2 ft tall and almost as wide:
I buy this because the bees (both native and honeybees) go crazy for it.  It's covered in delicate purple spires of blooms until a hard freeze kills it,  and it is almost always covered in pollinators.  I've never eaten it, but I hear that people do use it for culinary purposes.  It is a sterile hybrid between African basil, which has a camphor-like scent, and opal basil.  Because it's sterile, you have to buy plants every year- unless you either dig up your plant or root pieces to carry over.  But! You're in luck!  It roots like crazy in water, which you can see below.  These pieces, which I'd tip-pruned to make my original plants more bushy, have only been in their little vase for a week and they're ready to pot up.

I usually root my original plants two or three times in a season and plant them in pots and in the borders around my garden, just to attract the native bees and butterflies (as well as my favorite honeybees).  By the time we have a killing freeze, the original plants are the size of mature boxwoods.  I think this year I might try cooking with some of this basil, or infusing it in kombucha or using the flowers in salads.  

In the jar next to the basil is purple shiso, or perilla.  It is a relative of mint, and once you have it, well, you have it.  I got my original plant in a big box of perennials from one of my mother-in-law's friends, who gave me several starts from her perennial garden as a wedding gift (I still have many of the plants, 14 years later, and it is still one of my favorite gifts.  I think of Mrs. Allison every time I pull one of these shiso plants!).  It is a vigorous reseeder if you let it flower, but like the basil, the flowers are long spires of purple that are favorites of pollinators. 

Shiso is a popular herb in many Asian cuisines and gives off a lovely rosy color (it may be the color used in pickled ginger) and a punchy peppery-meets-mint flavor.  I've been leaving a plant or two in my borders and in large pots of mixed flowers for height and depth of color, and I like to use a stem or two in bouquets.  Last night I made sushi bowls for supper and added a small bowl of shiso ribbons to the table for color and a little flavor.  I've also heard of infusions for cocktails (Empire in Portland ME had a "shiso crazy" cocktail that intrigued me, and I've seen it used as a mojito ingredient), but I haven't experimented with it in cocktails- yet.  Again, as you can see in the kitchen-window photo, it roots like a champ, so if you find some in an asian market or in a friend's garden, you can grow it, too!  

Both Shiso and African Blue Basil do well in full sun to part shade, in a variety of conditions, but they appreciate well-drained, loose soil.  I'll admit that I've seen shiso growing in my driveway cracks and I don't baby it at all.  I think I'll have it forever!


  1. Shiso just showed up in my yard one day and then when I went for a walk I discovered that a neighbor around the corner had a big patch of it and that's where mine must have come from! And as you said, now I'll have it forever. Driveway cracks and in the lawn too. This year I have so much I am definitely going to be experimenting. this is top on my list.

  2. Shiso sounds like a plant for me! I'll be on the lookout for it now! Thanks for the info! :)

  3. Sounds great I should give it a try