I grow basil every year in a container on my deck, near enough to the kitchen to easily grab a few sprigs to liven up almost any culinary creation. Generally, I use it so frequently that the plant doesn’t get a chance to flower, but every so often I am remiss in its use and, voila, I end up with tiny delicate blooms on basil. The question is then, should basil be allowed to flower and if so, can you eat basil flowers?
Basil Plant Flowering
If your basil plant has flowered, the question of what to do depends on what you are growing the herb for. Basil is a member of the mint family, Lamiaceae, with over 40 known varieties. Most folks grow it for its aromatic and flavorful foliage, redolent of mint and clove with slight peppery notes.
Although basil is most often associated with the Mediterranean or Italy, the herb actually originated in Asia — Thailand, Vietnam and parts of India — where it is often grown as a perennial. Because of this broad connection, basil can be found in almost every cuisine on the planet.
Among the vast varieties of basil, Ocimum basilicum, or sweet basil, is the most commonly grown. Ocimum is derived from the Greek meaning “to be fragrant” and thus, is evocative of this plant’s delicious foliage. Basil leaves, whether sweet basil or purple, spicy Thai or citrusy lemon basil, all contain essential oils responsible for their unique flavor nuances. The foliage is easily bruised, releasing the magnificent perfume. So then, should basil be allowed to flower?
So, if your basil plant has flowered, is this a good thing or a bad thing? If you are cultivating basil strictly for its leaves, it is best to remove the flowers. Pinching basil blooms back will allow all of the plant’s energy to stay focused on foliage production, creating a bushier plant with more leaves and maintaining higher levels of essential oils in the leaves. Leaving the flowers on basil plants tends to engender a straggly looking specimen with fewer leaves to harvest.
That said, if you have also been remiss in pinching basil blooms, just snip them off and, as they are quite pretty, put them in a bud vase to enjoy on the window sill. Or, you can also sprinkle them on a salad or over pasta to enliven the dish because, yes, basil flowers are edible. They also make great tea! You can expect the blooms to taste similar to the leaves, but with a milder flavor.
If, however, your intent when cultivating basil is for a big batch of pesto, you’ll want to pinch back the herb to encourage leaf growth. Pinch off the flower buds as soon as they emerge. Basil will usually need to be pruned every two to three weeks and it’s okay to go at it. The plant can tolerate a severe pruning which will, in fact, promote growth.
Lastly, fertilize your basil sparingly, as it will actually decrease the fragrant essential oils, and harvest the leaves in the early morning when they are at their peak. Don’t overreact if the plant blossoms — just pinch back the blooms or, better yet, cut back half the foliage. Use both for dinner and the plant will double in size within a couple of weeks, healthier and bushier than before.