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.
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.)
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.
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.
The 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.]