Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter


from the May 12, 2007 Newsletter issued from Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve, QUERÉTARO, MÉXICO

Basil, OCIMUM BASILICUM, the Basil in our garden also is flowering nowadays, as you can see above. That plant clearly isn't in the peak of health, for during the dry season, if something is on the watering list, gardeners tend to overwater, and that leaches nitrogen from the soil, which accounts for the yellowing leaves. Also, to have thick, succulent leaves for cooking you need to pinch off a plant's flowers, and two pairs of leaves under them. Flowering causes a hormone change in the plant dramatically reducing leaf growth as well as leaf pungency.

Anyway, in the above picture the plant is about knee high and a honeybee is approaching the white flowers, which are stacked in racemes at branch ends. A close-up showing a half-inch long flower (1.5 cm) is below:


Basil is a member of the big, often good-smelling Mint Family, and the flower in the picture shows basic Mint-Family features. The green calyx is five-toothed. Both the calyx and white corolla are bilaterally symmetrical as opposed to being radially symmetrical like the above Rue flower (note the bottom lip being longer than the top). There are four stamens of two lengths.

One of the most interesting Mint-Family features, however, isn't seen unless you look inside a calyx from which the old corolla has fallen off, and the ovary has already matured somewhat. For, in the Mint Family, the ovary is very deeply "four-lobed." When the ovary matures, each lobe forms a "nutlet," so you get four little seed-like nutlets nestled in the calyx's bottom like eggs in a basket. You can see a calyx with one side removed so you can see the nutlets below:

Basil, OCIMUM BASILICUM, four nutlets of four-lobed ovary

Again, those egglike things, the nutlets, are not seeds, but rather each is one part of a deeply four- lobed ovary. One seed resides inside each nutlet.

Basil's genus name, Basilicum, is from classical Greek meaning "kingly," because of Basil's healing properties. It's interesting that in the North we don't think of Basil as medicinal, but indigenous cultures often have a high regard for its medicinal value. Basil is native to the Old World Tropics, so it's been introduced into the pharmacopeias of New-World indigenous people since the European invasion.

And I can tell you that when I roll Rue leaves into a Basil leaf and poke the resulting little, green cigar into my fungusy ear awhile, my ear doesn't itch all night the way it does if I don't.