Saturday, September 4, 2021

Wild sweet basil

Wild sweet basil has lavender flowers
unlike sweet basil and lime basil which
have white flowers.

Florida's native basil

Wild sweet basil (Ocimum campechianum) is warm-weather herb related to sweet basil (O. basilicum) and lime basil (O. americanum). (Lime basil can tolerate Florida's hot wet summers, which I wrote about in two previous posts.) Unlike those traditional basils so popular in the Mediterranean cooking, which are native to India, Africa and Southeast Asia, this wild basil is native to the southernmost Florida counties, the Caribbean islands, Mexico, Central America, and most of South America.

Since we live in northeast Florida, this plant is not a true native here, but South Florida is MUCH closer to home than Africa or India, so this species of basil would be a regional native that should be better adapted to our climate with our hot, wet summers. Sweet basil often suffers from fungal diseases during our wet summers. 

One reason to use more native plants in your landscape is to better support the birds and the local pollinators. While I have seen various bees visiting its lavender flowers, there is much more bee activity around the lime basil flowers. It's possible that since there are only a few plants in a container, that there is not enough of a mass of this basil to be obvious to the bees.  

Wild sweet basil's native range in Florida Wild sweet basil's native range in the world

I'm growing a container with this basil and
it has grown well throughout the summer.

How does it grow?

I obtained some seeds from a friend this spring and started growing it a large container so I could keep track of it. Several seeds germinated and grew fairly quickly and produced a number of side branches, so the container garden ended up looking pretty good. Now, in September, I've observed no problems with these plants, which is good and we've had a very wet wet season—ten inches of rain in both June and July.

Since I've been mainly growing it to produce seed for this first year, I have not harvested the flowering stalks, which would keep it regrowing. But I've not noticed any trace of fungal disease, but the bottom leaves have been slowly turning yellow. I think this will be reduced once I cut it back on a regular basis.

I will treat this basil the same as the Old World species—as a warm-weather annual that would be planted each spring and regularly trimmed back to keep it growing.  I'll start harvesting seed now in September and store it with the rest of my seeds in a sealed container in the refrigerator. I'll plant it next spring in the garden and see how it compares to my favoritelime basil. 


Wild sweet basil's flowers are edible, too.

How does it taste?

As they say, taste is hard to define. This basil is similar in strength of the taste to sweet basil and to lime basil, but it's different. When you first taste a young leaf, there is a hint of mint, but then it develops into a stronger, more complex flavor with an anise overtone and a bit of spicy heat. I'd compare its strength of flavor and aroma to that of fresh oregano.

I like the taste and so does my husband, who has the augmented tasting gene that makes cilantro taste like soap to him. (That was disappointing to find out when a lovely cilantro crop had to be composted, because he hated it.) My friend Gail Taylor said that she grew it one year and did not care for the strong taste.   

So how would I use it? I'd use it in moderation in fresh salads, but it would be fine in any pesto and to flavor savory soups hot or cold.

I'd recommend the wild sweet basil for your herb gardens in North and Central Florida. For South Florida, I'd recommend it for pollinator gardens and other hot sunny places in where it will reseed and create a thick stand. Growing this plant in your South Florida yard will add to the diversity of the local wild populations.

Green Gardening Matters,
Ginny Stibolt


Read Craig Huegel's plant profile of this basil on his Hawthorn Hill Wildflowers blog


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