Gardeners often grow basil alongside their tomatoes, adhering to the folk advice that tomatoes taste sweeter when basil is growing nearby.
According to science, that theory is hogwash. Interplanting with basil isn't a bad idea: The Herb Society of America points out that basil looks handsome in the company of marigolds. But basil doesn't make tomatoes taste better or grow bigger.
Even though basil isn't beneficial to tomatoes, it has plenty to offer eaters. Here, seven good reasons to cozy up to the herb:
1. Are you starting to feel a strange sense of calm? Merely thinking about basil may not have any bearing on your mood, but botanist James Duke, author of “The Green Pharmacy,” believes basil can help alleviate anxiety. As he told Health magazine, preliminary research suggests the phytochemicals in basil may lower cortisol, a hormone associated with feelings of stress. Duke recommends adding a few basil leaves to a glass of iced tea.
2. Although it's native to Asia and Africa, historians believe Alexander the Great brought basil to the Western world. Chrysippus, a Greek stoic philosopher, maintained basil “exists only to drive men insane.” It brushed up against madness in the literary realm when Giovanni Boccaccio wrote “The Decameron,” including a story in which a woman's brother kills her lover. She digs up his head and puts it in a pot. “And cover'd it with mould, and o'er it set/ Sweet Basil, which her tears kept ever wet.”
3. Essential oils are responsible for the aroma of basil, which varies by species. Most basils contain methyl chavicol, eugenol and linalool, but their proportions determine a leaf's precise odor. Sweet basil is rich in eugenol, which smells like cloves. Lemon basil derives its citrus scent from citral, while licorice basil shares an essential oil with anise, and has the aroma to prove it.
4. Another disagreement surrounding basil concerns the species count. There are more than 60 species, including sweet basil (found atop margherita pizzas); Thai basil (a common addition to pho); holy basil (best known for its role in Thai stir-fries) and lemon basil (vital to certain Laotian stews.) “This is due to the fact that the genus is still being studied by researchers and to basil's 'promiscuous' nature,” The Herb Society of America explains in its basil guide.
5. While basil usually tops out at 4-feet tall, Anastasia Grigoraki grew a basil plant in Crete that measured just shy of 11 feet.
6. Basil has a longstanding relationship with scorpions, which is why astrologers consider basil to be Scorpios' herb. The 17th-century English botanists Nicholas Culpeper and John Gerard believed basil could cure scorpion stings (Gerard also maintained that chewed-up basil left out in the sun would spontaneously generate worms.) In parts of Africa, healers endorsed using basil as a safeguard against scorpions. But other European physicians active in Culpeper's day warned that too much basil-sniffing would cause scorpions to grow in the brain. In reference to the discord, Culpeper wrote that basil was, “the Herb which all Authors are together by the Ears about, and rail at one another like Lawyers.”
7. Basil is very easy to freeze. It can be frozen whole in plastic bags, but for garnishing, it's handier to chop up the herb and place in an ice cube tray with a small amount of water.