The Mysterious Purple Basil

Part I

For this paper, I chose to look into the history and usage of purple basil, which we found both in the bostan in the church grounds near Yedikule and also in the bostan further north at the mouth of the Black Sea. The name “purple basil,” I have found is far more colloquial than scientific. Technically, Ocimum basilicum, “Purpurascens” was first identified by British botanist, George Betham, in the 1830s (DeBaggio, 2014). In fact there are several species of purple basil, including some that grows in tiny leaves in Thailand and another found in the mountainous regions of north America. At first, I thought there were just two types, the Ruffled and Osmin Purple Basil, and I tried my best to identify which of the two our selection was. I don’t think my analysis was as detailed as it would be without live specimens, proper leaf indexes or detailed descriptions on the differences in species. Therefore, I cannot specify what type of purple basil we found here in Istanbul.

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Photo Credit: Caroline Silber, 2014

Research on the origins of purple basil also posed some challenges. The basil is made purple by the heightened presence of anthocyanin, a purple pigment. Within the genus of purple basil, there is great discrepancy over the taxonomy when it comes to the species and their origins and nature (Phippen, 2000).

In my search for both the origins and arrival of purple and regular green basil in Istanbul, I also didn’t have much luck. I decided to therefore look into the sources given in our class. In the Geoponika, dated back the10th century, I found in the 14th chapter of the 12th book a small paragraph to describe how to best fertilize basil, along with other plants (tl. Cassianus). In the three typika, detailed charters from monasteries and convents of Byzantium in the late middle ages, there was no mention of basil (green or purple) as a plant. There was the mention of a “St. Basil” in the 12th century document (tl. Bandy), and the phrase, “the divine Basil,” as a teacher of God in the 13th century typika (tl. Talbot). Although not plant related, perhaps the origins of their name, reverent in nature, are a result of the productive and fruitful essence of the plant.

The leaf part of the basil plant is the only part that is conventionally eaten. The leaves can be eaten whole or dried as a flavorful accent to other dishes. It can also be pureed into pesto, which capitalizes on the plant’s natural oils.

Although there are a variety of types of basil within the same genus, there are some wild forms of basil that typically showcase more elaborate flowers and have smaller leaves. Their categorization as “wild” may also be a product of certain strains like sweet green basil becoming a domesticated and a harvested crop because of their fuller leaves and thus higher nutritional output.

Part II

Purple basil, and its most common types, the Ruffled and Osmin, both thrive in strong sunlight and moist but drained soil (Backyard Gardener). Osmin Basil prefers more humid environments. Purple Basil is an incredibly durable plant, which often grows on the outskirts of a garden in sort of a protective manner. Its variety is shape allows it to be a versatile container plant (Mississippi State University, 2004). When were were visiting the bostan near the Black Sea, we saw purple basil growing vigorously on the outskirts beyond the borders of the intended crop. It was almost weed-like. Although the report on purple basil released from the Penn State states that there are no pests for this plant, the “Backyard Gardener” reports that the biggest problems for the Purple Basil is the whiteflies as a pest and Verticillium and Fursarium Wilt for diseases (Backyard Gardener).

Since there are so many types of basil found throughout the world, the planting specifics for purple basil have to be geo-specific. In a description of purple basil from an organization founded in Israel, which has similar climate and conditions to Turkey, (despite the biome-diversity of Istanbul itself), the methods for cultivating purple basil are as follows:

-planting time is all year

-crop time is 2-5 weeks

-ideal temperature are 16 degrees at night and 20 degrees at day

-plant size ranges from 12 to 24 inches and should be planted 12 to 18 inches

apart

(Hishtil, 2014)

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Photo Credit: Caroline Silber, 2014

Part III

When I first saw what purple basil was, since I had never seen it before, I was immediately intrigued by its color. Yes, purple is my favorite, beyond favorite, color. I have had basil before; I grew up cultivating it in my family’s small vegetable garden in Massachusetts, but I have never seen it in purple. Being basically the same plant, I expected it to taste the same as what I knew my green sweet basil back home tastes like. I personally don’t really like basil to begin with unless its mashed up into pesto, so I was even more opposed to the more bitter, almost licorice-like taste of the purple basil. It had a more grainy texture than what I’m used to and, as I said, the taste was a bit less of my liking. My favorite part of the whole experience that took place on the third floor of Woods Hall, was the smell. The fresh smell of basil, or what I could fish out of the other vegetable aromas filling up the room, reminded me of the green basil back home. I was back in my kitchen in the late summer afternoon preparing dinner with my family.

Traditionally I have only known basil to be good for pesto and caprese salad. In my research I found that purple basil is complementary with Thai food as well as some Mexican dishes. As for Turkish cuisines, I found an interesting one from a blog called “Turkish Style Cooking.” I’m not sure how legitimate the page is, but we’ll go with it because it’s a fitting title. Plus it’s such an intriguing idea I have to share it.

One Turkish recipe involving purple basil is a purple basil sherbet, or sweet drink.  It’s looks simple and delicious! (Turkish Style Cooking).

Ingredients:

  • 1 bunch of purple basil,
  • 1 cup sugar,
  • Juice of 1 lemon,
  • 3 lt boiling water.

Preparation:

  1. Wash, drain and dry purple basil,
  2. Transfer into a deep pan or glass cookware and add water,
  3. Set aside to cool to room temperature, lid open,
  4. Take the purple basils out of the water and throw away,
  5. Add lemon juice adn şugar,
  6. Stir until the sugar melts,
  7. Strain with a piece of cloth and chill.

 

___

From the primary research we did for this blog post, it is clear to me that there is so much more to learn about the biodiversity that surrounds us, growing in the soil of potted plants on the back window sill or in full gardens directly in the middle of a bustling city.

 

_______________________________________


Sources:

 

Backyard Gardener. “Ocimum basilicum: Purple Delight Sweet Basil.” (http://www.backyardgardener.com/plantname/pd_ada7.html).

Cassianus, Bassus, Geoponika: Farm Work: A Modern Translation of the Roman and Byzantine Farming Handbook. Totnes, Devon: Prospect Books, 2011, 9-55 and  246- 267. (https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/5111268/Harvard%20summer%20school%20readings/Second%20Week/Dalby%20A.%2C%20Geoponika.pdf).

DeBaggio, Thomas. “Growing Purple Basil,”  Mother Earth Living. May 2014. (http://www.motherearthliving.com/gardening/purple-basils.aspx#ixzz39RzeXumW).

Histil. “Ocimum basilicum purpurascens.” 2014. (http://www.hishtil.com/htmls/page_916.aspx?c0=18157&bsp=18222).

Mississippi State University: Office of Agriculture Communications. “Awards selection committee chooses Purple Ruffles basil.” April, 2004. (http://msucares.com/news/print/sgnews/sg04/sg040415.html).

Phippen, WB. “Anthocyanin inheritance and instability in purple basil (Ocimum basilicum L.).”Center for New Crops and Plant Products, Purdue University. June 2000. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10912675)

Turkish Style Cooking. “Purple Basil Sherbet Recipe.” July 2014. (http://www.hishtil.com/htmls/page_916.aspx?c0=18157&bsp=18222).

Typikon of Athanasios Philanthropenos for the Monastery of St. Mamas in Constantinople (trans. Anastasius Bandy) (http://www.doaks.org/resources/publications/doaks-online-publications/byzantine-monastic-foundation-documents/typ043.pdf).

Typikon of Theodora Palaiologina for the Convent of Lips in Constantinople (trans. Alice-Mary Talbot) (http://www.doaks.org/resources/publications/doaks-online-publications/byzantine-monastic-foundation-documents/typ051.pdf)

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