Saturday, July 9, 2011

Oh my sweet Basil

Basil is a herb that can work miracles and lift any dull dish. Imagine what would tomato based pasta sauces be like sans basil. Not only Italian food, but just think of phở without húng quế and you will probably agree with me. I've always enjoyed a bowl of hot chicken broth with either sweet or Thai basil whenever I am feeling a bit under the weather. Sweet basil in Malaysia is an overpriced herb, and only two major suppliers produce it.

In the past, I've grown bush basil, purple basil (most of them need a cool environment to turn purple), Thai basil, holy basil and lemon basil. In February, after realising that I have not planted basil for quite some time (the reason being I would rather buy it from the supermarkets than to keep myself busy pruning and pinching them to prevent it from flowering), I dug through my 'magic box' of seeds to see if I still have any hoarded away.

I have a bad habit of buying seeds and then not planting them and storing them until they are way past the expiry date. I found a pack of unopened Sweet Basil from Yates, with the stamped expiry date of Aug 2003, and decided to scatter a handful of seeds just to see if they will germinate. And boy do they surprise you. And this would be the first time that I've grown it on a balcony of a high rise building.
Basil seedlings on 17 Feb 2011.

Since a large percentage of the seedlings germinated (I was totally unprepared for it), they began to die off one by one due to damping off from being overcrowded. So out comes the fungicide and what I was able to get my hands on at that time from the local store was carbendazim. A metabolite of benomyl, it is a benzimidazole fungicide that do exert some nematicidal effect at high concentrations (it prevents nematodes from feeding but will also make earthworms go berserk and die off, so I rarely use it on the garden).

The application of the fungicide stopped the damping off dead on its tracks, but then I noticed that it does have some phytotoxic effect on the leaves of the basil. The compound gets translocated acropetally, eventually ending up at the ends of the leaves and they will burn the leaves (you can see the burnt tips on the seedlings). In mature plants, they collect towards the edges of the leaves in the areas between the major veins, causing the area to turn dark and scorched.
Seedlings 7 March 2011 after fungicide treatment.
Basil seedlings suffering leaf tip burns from fungicide treatment 16 March 2011.

After they produced a few sets of true leaves, I selected the seedlings based on growth rate (i.e. relatively larger seedlings), and also the strength of the aroma and transplanted them into individual polybags. There were some observed variations as some of the seedlings were very prone to wilting in the tropical heat (they like the sun, but suffers from the heat).

The high relative humidity means that they can't cool off effectively with transpiration. Some were (at that stage) rather mild in terms of scent. I left the runts in a shadier location and let them fend for themselves (though they actually provided quite some amount of basil for daily pickings).
Sweet basil transplanted into individual polybags on 24 March 2011.

Fertilization with 21-21-21 liquid fertiliser weekly gets me this...

Mature plants 4 May 2011.

Big yummy basil leaves.
A sinkful of sweet basil.

For the first round of harvesting (in May), I ended chopping 2/3 of the plants off when I noticed that the leaves were changing shape, indicating that they were ready to bloom. From 6 plants in small polybags, I filled a whole sink with basil, and went on to pack some for my mom, cook a huge pot of spaghetti sauce and let the go to waste.

The second round (June) wasn't that bad and I've now gone on the daily pinching to prevent the plants from blooming. The heat and cycles of wilting (the air can be very dry - water in the morning, dry by midday) only serves to push the plants to put out flowers and end the life cycle.

Recently, I noticed a nursery selling what looks like lemon basil. The scent was very intense when you rubbed against the leaves. Acting on an impulse, I grabbed a plant, even though it has gone to bloom, and something nagging at the back of my head, telling me that there is something odd about the plant. The first thing I did was to chop off all the flowering shoots and thats when I noticed that it was slightly different from the lemon basil that I had before.
A recent addition - lemon basil.

The flower stalk looked different, though I ignored it and threw all the cuttings away. Then I noticed that the lemon scent and flavour was different - very sharp, clear lemony scent, and in my openion, stronger than lemongrass. The leaves and stem and the flower stalk were very hairy, much hairier than Ocimum xcitriodorum that I've planted before. The texture of the leaves in particular, felt very different from two previous lemon basil (presumably Ocimum xcitriodorum) that I have planted before. I passed some of the cuttings to a friend, who said it tasted more like hoary basil (Ocimum americanum syn. canum). Since I've thrown away the flowers, I would need to wait until they bloom again, to observe the lip length and the hairiness of the flowers to confirm its identity, and will leave it identified as lemon basil for the time being. It could be either hoary basil, one of the cultivars of O. xcitriodorum that is highly influenced by one of the parents, one of those promiscuous back crosses or out-crossing with another basil.

Lemon basil with very hairy internode and hairy stems.

In the end, this endeavour proves two things; it is easy to grow basil on the balcony, and secondly, I went back to fighting to keep the sweet basil from going to bloom. However, growing basil does feel like its worth every bit of effort that you put in, since you get fresh basil from your own garden, anytime you need it. No more having to hunt at the supermarkets and paying dearly for it. Well, at least for me it is.