Ah, August. The grass has nearly ceased growing due to our persistent drought, many annuals seem in suspended animation and most of the perennials have been cut back, staked or abandoned. The garden seems to hold few mysteries this time of year, and we are apt to pass over many plants daily, intent only on succoring them through the heat and into September.
Yet there are still some plants that can surprise and even delight.
For example, the herb of love.
Did you know there may be an aphrodisiac right outside in your garden? It is basil, the queen of herbs, and even if you don't have any in your garden, there is still time to grow some.
Italian legend has it that if a man gives a woman a sprig of basil she will fall in love with him forever. While such easy romance is not guaranteed (although a little supper of fettucini with pesto and Chianti might be helpful), basil, Ocimum basilicum, remains one of the most popular herbs of all time, and one of the most versatile.
Basil's aromatic leaves, redolent of anise and a hint of clove and mint, are superb in the traditional cuisines of many countries. The herb lends itself happily to enhancing everything from salsa fresca to stir-fried vegetables, lamb, and garden-ripened tomatoes. Not only the leaves are edible, but the flowers as well, and they make a lovely garnish for salads.
Recently, some basil products at a local gourmet store were linked to Cyclospora food poisoning, but Dave Portesi, an epidemiologist and spokesman for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, says: "There have been no cases of Cyclospora associated with homegrown basil or any other homegrown vegetables. We do recommend, however, that basil -- and all produce -- be washed before eating, especially if it is going to be consumed uncooked."
Basil has had many uses other than cooking for centuries and has not always been associated with food and romance.
In India, it is a sacred herb dedicated to the god Vishnu. Branches of holy basil, Ocimum sanctum, were laid on the breasts of the dead in times past to protect them from evil and guide them into paradise.
Basil, as a member of the mint family, makes a fine aid to digestion and can be taken in the form of a tea for this purpose. It is also reputed to have mild sedative properties, which may help nervous headaches and anxiety.
Much more appealing to me is the fact that fresh basil not only smells wonderful, but revives the spirit as well. It makes a splendid addition to baths (tie it in cheesecloth so you don't have to pick the leaves off yourself later), and can be steeped in a good bath or body oil, like almond or sesame, to make custom-scented lotions.
Used with rosemary in a rinse after shampooing, basil will add luster and shine to hair. Pack a half cup or so of the fresh leaves in a teapot with a tablespoon of fresh rosemary, pour on boiling water and leave it to steep until cool. This also makes a lovely addition to bath water.
One of my favorite uses for basil (besides cooking) is to use it in flower arrangements. I love big bouquets of it in a vase or pitcher on the kitchen table, filling the air with its spicy perfume.
Cinnamon basil is especially good for this, with its small, graceful leaves and sprays of lavender-purple flowers. And it makes a sturdy scaffold for other summer flowers, which are often difficult to arrange because their stems tend to be soft (black-eyed Susan and Queen Anne's lace, to name two).
After the picking
Which brings us to a few suggestions on how to handle basil after it is picked. Most important: Don't refrigerate it. Refrigeration makes it limp, and if it is at all wet, the cold will turn it black.
If you want beautiful basil to last for a week or more -- for cooking or admiring -- the secret is to treat it like a cut flower.
When you get it in from the garden, recut the stems, taking off about a quarter-inch, and put them into plain, tepid water right away. A vase or even a heavy-bottom tumbler works fine. Even if the basil has been lying about in a plastic bag for a few hours, it can be revived in this manner as long as it has not been refrigerated.
Treated this way, basil will stay in good condition for five to 10 days at room temperature in the kitchen, just as fresh and sassy as when it was on the plant.
The handsome foliage of basil also looks good in the flower border, and there are several cultivars with lavender and purple flowers (Mexican, cinnamon and Thai 'Siam Queen' basil), and burgundy ('Red Rubin,' 'Osmin Purple' and 'Purple Ruffles') or bicolored leaves ('Red and Green Holy Basil'). It lends itself easily to trimming, and the varieties with smaller leaves ('Spicy Bush Basil,' O.b. minimum) can be sheared like small shrubs.
Basil also comes in a dizzying array of scents.
The heady fragrance of pesto basils ('Genovese', 'Italian Large Leaf,' et al.) make it a pleasure to brush up against them along a garden path, and indeed a scent garden could almost be built solely around the basils.