‘Pesto Party’ Basil-Nutritious Flavor Powerhouse

 

‘Pesto Party’ Basil from Burpee
Whipping up pesto

A highly fragrant plant, Basil’s leaves are used as a seasoning herb for all different types of foods and is a major component of my favorite flavor – pesto. Pesto, a mixture of basil, pine nuts, garlic, and Parmesan cheese, is a versatile mixture that can enhance breads, pastas, and even meats. Try my recipe for African Blue Basil. 

Whipping up a batch of pesto, I always like to have some growing Basil plants on hand, but it can be hard to keep alive indoors. And outdoors my Basil gets disfigured with Basil Mildew which makes it inedible. I had almost given up growing it and instead was buying the hydroponic plants at the grocery store.

Basil is an excellent source of vitamin K and manganese, copper, vitamin A (in the form of carotenoids such as beta-carotene), and vitamin C; and a good source of calcium, iron, folate, magnesium and omega-3 fatty acids. I had no idea!

Basil mildew will disfigure the entire plant quickly

I was delighted to find ‘Pesto Party’ from Burpee which is very resistant to the dreaded mildew.  Where has this Basil been all my life? ‘Party Pesto’ grew nicely into a mounded plant for me and is extremely slow to flower. As an experienced Basil grower knows, you don’t want the herb to flower as it changes the taste (bitter)and it will slowly decline. The inevitable mildew finally appeared in October on ‘Pesto Party’, when most of my plants were slowing down. I had gotten an entire season of harvest from my plant and my moneys worth.

I love Pesto! And with the new ‘Pesto Party’ Basil from Burpee I can make unlimited pesto all summer long. Burpee describes it this way;

Pesto Party’ is the latest-flowering basil from seed, letting you enjoy a preponderance of aromatic fresh-picked leaves deep into the season. Basking prettily in your favorite patio container, well-branching plants produce a continuing flourish of fragrant leaves infused with sweet Italian basil flavor. Late-to-bolt plants are paragons of tolerance to downy mildew—no other basil comes close.

I have to agree with that description- no other basil comes close. And growing it in containers right outside my kitchen door was a perfect solution for this mounding compact plant. Available by seeds or plants from Burpee, I received three plants in the spring and ate off of those plants all summer.

Purple Basil and Cinnamon and Anise flavored Basils aren’t as susceptible to Mildew
The mildew starts with yellowing of the foliage, progressing to blotching of the leaves

Downy mildew of basil is a relatively new, destructive disease that appears to be here to stay. First appearing in the U.S. in 2007, it appeared earlier in Europe. Basil is the leading culinary herb in the U.S. and it is decimating basil crops here. The pathogen can readily spread easily via wind-dispersed spores that it produces abundantly. This is likely the primary way it has spread throughout the eastern USA every summer since 2008.

Requiring a full sun location and well draining soil, easily grown in a container on a back deck or patio, ‘Pesto Party’ is on my short list for next year.

An added benefit of ‘Pesto Party’ is the slowness of bolting into flower

African Blue Basil and Basil Downy Mildew

African Blue Basil

Everyone knows and loves the wonderful basil plant and its many uses, notably pesto. Pungent pesto made from fresh basil is a wonderful accompaniment to pasta, bread, and just about any other food that you can find to slather it on. But African Blue Basil amps up the flavor switch a notch. It has a “licoricey” or almost a camphor or anise flavor that is hard to describe. The added benefit for me is that African Blue is not susceptible to Basil Downy Mildew which is running rampant throughout the United States.

Opal basil showing signs on the lower leaves of Basil downy mildew
Opal basil showing signs on the lower leaves of Basil downy mildew

African Blue Basil (Ocimum kilimandscharicum x basilicum ‘Dark Opal’) is an accidental hybrid between an East African basil that is native to Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda that is valued for its exquisite scent, and a garden variety basil called ‘Dark Opal’, known for it eggplant purple coloration. It is a hybrid so it can only be grown from cuttings, not seed.

That is why African Blue has plum undertones and speckles, and has its unique aromatic taste. And contrary to what some people  believe, it is very edible, in fact quite delicious as pesto.

The makings of African Blue pesto
The makings of African Blue pesto

Edible Landscaping

African Blue Basil is a very decorative plant and would fit right in with the craze of edible landscaping; you can eat it –  plus it is beautiful! Every part of the plant is edible-stems, flowers, and leaves. Covered with blooms all summer long, the slender flower spikes of violet buds open to lavender flowers.

Slender wands of flowers decorate the plant all summer long
Slender wands of flowers decorate the plant all summer long

A regimen of nipping the flowering stalks off a basil plant is normal for any other varieties but not African Blue. You want those flowers for garnishes so this is a strictly “leave it alone” plant. The 1- to 2 1/2-inch long leaves are a slightly grayed green hue with amethyst spattering on their undersides. The plant grows up to 2 feet tall  and is much bushier than regular basil varieties. One rooted cutting will supply you with plenty of pesto and edible flowers all season long. Throw the edible flowers into salads for a flavor sensation. Go to my post on Eat Your Flowers! for more ideas.

African Blue Basil
African Blue Basil

Cultivation

Plant African Blue Basil transplants in spring when all danger of frost is gone in a sunny spot and step back and let nature take its course. It will do well in a container and behaves well with other plants. Like all basils, it likes hot, hot sun and good drainage.

Pinching off the tips of basil stems makes the plant branch out laterally. Since this basil is a sterile hybrid, you can only purchase plants, not seeds. When you bring home your young plant,  pinch out its center stem to start this process. I naturally harvest it all season long for pesto and salads so the plant gets very bushy and lush. Don’t be afraid to pinch it to avoid floppiness later.

 

African Blue Pesto Recipe 

Place in your food processor: 1/4 cup olive oil, 1/3 cup water, 1/4 cup raw pine nuts, 3 cloves of garlic, chopped coarsely, and 2 cups of basil leaves, stems and flowers, chopped coarsely and packed lightly into the measure. Blend well, stirring large bits back into the mixture and reblending as needed. Transfer the mixture into a bowl and stir in 3/4 cup of freshly grated Parmesan cheese.  Add a sprinkling of grated black pepper. And sit back and enjoy this concoction on your pasta! You can keep this in the fridge with a layer of olive oil on top for a couple of weeks or freeze it. I freeze it in ice-cube containers for ease of removing throughout the winter.

Basil Downy Mildew

The latest malady to hit ornamental and food plants is Basil Downy Mildew, which has appeared in the last couple of years and is sweeping through the country like wildfire. It starts with leaf yellowing, which looks like a nutritional deficiency and then spots appear and can make the entire plant unusable. Under the right weather conditions (wet, warm weather), basil downy mildew can spread rapidly and result in complete loss of all your basil plants. Although Peronospora belbahrii, the pathogen that causes basil downy mildew, cannot survive our mid-Atlantic winters, it can be reintroduced on infected seed or transplants or by windblown spores.

Basil leaves infected with basil downy mildew
Basil leaves infected with basil downy mildew
Sweet Basil starting to be infected with Basil Downy Mildew at the base and then it moves up the plant
Sweet Basil starting to be infected with Basil Downy Mildew at the base and then it moves up the plant

It seems like every basil I plant gets the infection soon after planting, but the African Blue one remains immune for me. I love using Basil in cooking and this really upsets me as there is no known cure, other than applications of fungicides which are know to be damaging to bee populations. Even fungicides are not effective when the weather is wet and warm like it has been all spring and summer.