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Ocimum basilicum (basil)

Ocimum basilicum, commonly known as basil, is an aromatic annual herb and an important economic crop.

Flowers of Ocimum basilicum

Ocimum basilicum (Photo: Wolfgang Stuppy)

Species information

Scientific name: 

Ocimum basilicum L.

Common name: 

basil, sweet basil

Conservation status: 

Least concern.

Habitat: 

Cultivated, not frost-hardy.

Key Uses: 

Food, perfume, flavoured liqueurs, medicine, insecticide.

Known hazards: 

None.

Taxonomy

Subclass: 
Superorder: 
Lamiales
Order: 
Lamiales
Family: 
Lamiaceae
Genus: Ocimum

About this species

Basil is an important economic crop producing annually c.100 tonnes of essential oil worldwide and with a trade value as a pot herb of around US$15 million per year. It is also widely used in systems of indigenous medicine.

Much confusion surrounds basil taxonomy with several forms having different attributes being recognised under the same name. However, a study by Dr Eli Putievsky of Newe Ya'ar Research Centre, Haifa, Israel, working with Alan Paton during a sabbatical year at Kew, used analysis of chromosome numbers and essential oils alongside morphological descriptions to investigate a standardisation of the approach. This type of work is extremely important in order to develop the full economic and medicinal potential of plant species.
 

Genus: 
Ocimum

Discover more

Ocimum basilicum

Geography and distribution

Tropics of Asia and Africa; widely cultivated elsewhere.

Description

Ocimum basilicum is an aromatic, annual herb, 0.3-0.5 metres tall, but some cultivars can reach up to 1 m. The plant is almost hairless. Some cultivars, such as the 'Dark Opal', have leaves and stems deep purple in colour. The leaves are ovate, often puckered, flowers white or pink, and fruits have four small nutlets, which are mucilaginous when wet.

Ocimum basilicum is closely related to and frequently confused with Ocimum africanum and Ocimum americanum, but they can be identified on the basis of indumentum (hair distribution) and flower size. Lemon-scented cultivars are usually the result of crosses between O. basilicum and O. africanum.

Uses

Basil is used to flavour soups and sauces and is the main ingredient of pesto sauce. The leaves can be eaten as a salad. Basil is also used in perfumery, soap-making, and to flavour liqueurs. The seeds are edible, and when soaked in water become mucilaginous. In parts of the Mediterranean they are made into a refreshing drink known as cherbet tokhum.

Basil is widely used in systems of traditional medicine, including Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine. It is used for treating digestive system disorders, such as stomach ache and diarrhoea, kidney complaints, and infections. In Africa, for example, it is used for treating whooping cough and various types of fever. The leaves are pulped in water to make ear- and eye-drops in parts of west Africa, and a leaf decoction is used for treating coughs.

The leaves are used to make an insecticide that can protect stored crops from beetle damage

Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage

The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life worldwide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in Kew's seed bank vault at Wakehurst.

Number of seed collections stored in the Millennium Seed Bank: 13
Seed storage behaviour: Orthodox (the seeds of this plant survive being dried without significantly reducing their viability, and are therefore amenable to long-term frozen storage such as at the MSB)
Germination testing: Successful
Composition values: Oil content 24%, Protein 21%

Cultivation

Unlike other herbs grown in the same family (Lamiaceae) such as rosemary, sage and mint, basil is tropical in origin and as a result is not frost-hardy.

References and credits

Burkill, H.M. (1995). The Useful Plants of West Tropical Africa, Vol. 3: Families J-L. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Dales, M.J. (1996). A Review of Plant Materials Used for Controlling Insect Pests of Stored Products. Natural Resources Institute, Chatham.

De-Baggio, T. & Belsinger, S. (1996). Basil: An Herb Grower's Guide. Interweave press, Loveland.

Hedrick, U.P. (ed.) (1919). Sturtevant’s Notes on Edible Plants. New York (State) Dept. of Agriculture, 27th Annual Report, Vol. 2 Part II. Lyon, Albany.

Kew Scientist. Available online.

SEPASAL (Survey of Economic Plants for Arid and Semi-Arid Lands).

Usher, G. (1974). A Dictionary of Plants used by Man. Constable, London.

Kew Science Editor: Alan Paton
Kew contributors: Sustainable Uses Group
Copy editing: Kew Publishing

While every effort has been taken to ensure that the information contained in these pages is reliable and complete, the notes on hazards, edibility and suchlike included here are recorded information and do not constitute recommendations. No responsibility will be taken for readers’ own actions.

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