Plant Profile: Floriferous African Blue Basil

African Blue Basil in bloom, with pollinator-friendly flowers.

African Blue Basil in bloom, with pollinator-friendly flowers.

Most basil plants we try to discourage from blooming because we mainly grow it for for the leaves, (pesto!) not the flowers, but African Blue Basil is different. The blue-purple flowers are one of the best parts of this plant, and in my opinion it’s a must in the pollinator garden. The bees absolutely love the flowers.

African Blue is also edible, with a strong basil taste with a stronger hint of the camphor flavour that most basils contain. You can use it for pesto, or any other recipe that needs basil. Of course, like all basils, you can eat the flowers too. And what beautiful flowers these make: blue-purple spikes atop all the stems, sprout upward in all directions.

The plant will grow as large as a small shrub in full sun. It also does very well in containers. Make sure it gets four or more hours of full sun for best results. The attractive purple veins on the leaves make African Blue Basil a great addition to a summer bouquet as well.

The other special thing about this plant is that it can’t be grown from seed, as it is a sterile hybrid of two other forms of basil. It must be propagated vegetatively. Here’s a little history of the African Blue Basil plant:

African blue basil (Ocimum kilimandscharicum x basilicum ‘Dark Opal’) is an accidental hybrid between an East African basil and a garden variety basil called ‘Dark Opal.’ The African parent is a perennial shrub from forests of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, valued for its camphor scent.

African blue basil was first seen in 1983 when Peter Borchard, owner of Companion Plants in Athens, Ohio, noticed it growing in the path between beds of the two presumed parents. The green-leaved East African basil parent grows to 6 feet tall in his garden. ‘Dark Opal’ is a small plant with deep purple leaves and a typical Italian basil flavor. Borchard dug the hybrid and brought it into the greenhouse, hoping to save seed, but the cross between the two species seems to be too far a stretch, because no seed formed. Borchard grew more plants from cuttings, and by cuttings has African blue basil entered the herb market.

You can dig them up at the end of the season, cut them back, pot them and bring them indoors for the winter, or you can take cuttings any time for new plants. It ought to be more widely available, but so far it seems to be still a bit of an undiscovered gem of the herb world.



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