Tim EntwisleBasil in the possumatouille?

Our backyard brushtail possums nibble on tomatoes, capsicums, grevilleas, hibbertias and marjoram, among other botanical delights. In fact they’ve dined on pretty much everything except the basil.

Brushtail possums. Photo by PDH

Brushtail possums. Photo by PDH

Rats, it seems, do like basil, but only in moderation. According to web advice for feeding pet rats, “it is high in calcium….too much calcium could cause bladder or kidney stones”.

So the good news is that we have possums but not rats in our backyard. (Although there is a very rat-like creature that tracks across our back fence every night around dusk. Let’s just say it’s heading to a neighbour’s property for its daily allowance of calcium.)

Sweet basil

Sweet basil

The other good news is that we have plenty of basil. Basil is big business. From Royal Botanic Gardens Kew’s Useful Plants and Fungi pages, we learn that each year around 100 tonnes of basil oil is produced and the trade of basil as a pot plant is worth something like US$15 million.

Sweet basil flowers

Sweet basil flowers

We also learn from those pages that common sweet basil, Ocimum basilicum, is almost hairless (the ‘almost’ allowing for the hairs you can see associated with its flowers, above) and that this separates it from closely related species such as Ocimum africanum, from Africa I presume, and perennial basil, Ocimum americanum, from you can guess where. Lemon-scented basil is usually a cross between Ocimum bascilicum and its African relative, and there are plenty of other species of Ocimum of culinary value.

Our basil’s scientific moniker, Ocimum basilicum, was bestowed on a plant collected in India, or nearby, and the species was probably originally native to parts of Asia further east such as Indonesia. Its cultivation seems to have begun in India and what is now called Iran, making its way to Egypt for use in mummification balms, and to Rome and Greece.

The flower shape and the aroma give away its familial affiliation: it’s in the plant family Lamiaceae with mint (and our local mint bushes), rosemary, sage, marjoram, thyme and lavender.

Flowers close upThe common name and species epithet for basil comes from the ancient and modern Greek word for a monarch, ‘basileus’, leading to the rather lazy designation of this condiment as the King of Herbs. With similar ease, let me finish with a more contemporary reference, the final episode of the immortal BBC comedy Fawlty Towers. As I’m sure you all know, Manuel thinks, thanks to Basil Fawlty, that his pet rat Basil (which he thinks is a Siberian hamster) is in the ratatouille. It isn’t but hilarity ensues.

For me and our backyard garden, there is plenty of basil – of the plant kind – but no other ratatouille ingredients thanks to our possum friends. Not on the menu, but worth noting, none of the possum casserole recipes I found on the web included basil.

[Images of sweet basil from our backyard in April this year, as we prepared to collect seed for next year’s crop.]

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Tim Entwisle

About Tim Entwisle

Dr Tim Entwisle is a scientist and scientific communicator with a broad interest in plants, science and gardens, and Director & Chief Executive of Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria. Previously he was Director of Conservation, Living Collections & Estates at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and prior to that, Director of Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens for eight years. Read Tim's full blog at Talking Plants

7 thoughts on “Basil in the possumatouille?

  1. Plant that possums don’t eat? Can it be true? Or maybe brushtails don’t like but ringtails do?

  2. sandra pullman on said:

    Hi Tim
    Great discovery finding one plant possums don’t eat.

  3. paul on said:

    We recently had a nocturnal visit from an old admirer who has’t been around for about a year. I guess our garden constitutes the winter pasture. Browsed on the brassica and sweet pea seedlings, and completely removed all the leaf matter from the remains of last season’s parsley crop, while leaving the stalks intact. Most surprisingly, he/she left the juicy mixed lettuce just approaching picking readiness entirely alone. Go figure!
    I did topdress the veggie patch with a little bit of lime last spring, upping calcium levels somewhat. However, the browsed seedlings did not have access to this. And even that doesn’t explain Possum’s parsley preference, the parsley also having had the benefit of some lime last spring.

  4. Interesting and typically perplexing Paul! I do find they change their dietary preferences over time, and season. Perhaps they have a preference list, perhaps they (like us) like to vary their diet? I’ve also found position is pretty important – a nice spot to sit while they much and they tend to not like things low down at ground level, at least in our garden… It’s hardly a science though and you wonder if they spend their days plotting how they’ll out-possum us the next night.

  5. Angela on said:

    I discovered that possums don’t eat rocket. I love rocket 🙂

  6. sandra pullman on said:

    Hi Tim
    Just remembered I went with the local council along our tram line counting possums and the volunteer helping us count them mentioned they preferred exotic plants to natives which explained (?) why the gum trees were fine but the elm trees were being decimated. What did they do before european settlement?
    Cheers Sandi

  7. Interesting comment about exotics v. locals Sandi. Not sure this is entirely correct. At the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne they happily munch on our eucalypts. I suspect it’s more to do with current population levels which I’m sure are far higher than at European settlement, or at least concentrated more densely in some areas (i.e. cities). Tim

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