Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Lemon Basil 'Sweet Dani' - Herb of the Week

Herb of the Week ‘Sweet Dani’ Lemon Basil 
                    (Ocimun basilicum ‘Sweet Dani’)

In 1998, just a few years after I started my first herb garden the All-American Selection was ‘Sweet Dani’, a vigorous, large-leaved green basil with a strong, fresh lemon scent.  At the time it was a new basil hybrid with characteristics of Ocimum basilicum and O. americanum.  Having an intense lemon flavor owing to a high concentration of citral, up to 65 percent, in the essential oil.  That year it was grown from seed by the volunteers at the Oak Park Conservatory and I purchased my first Sweet Dani Lemon Basil. 

As lemon basil’s go it has the strongest lemon taste and is reminiscent of a lemon oil.  All-America Selections is a nonprofit organization that tests and introduces new flower and vegetable varieties, evaluating their performance in trials across North America. ‘Sweet Dani’ was selected as a winner in the vegetable category in 1998.

James E. Simon, a research professor at ­Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, and his colleague in the horticulture department, Mario Morales was the creator of  ‘Sweet Dani.’  It grew out of a bigger proj­ect Simon was working on during the late 1980s on basils’ essential oils. He became interested in breeding basils for their ornamental value and spent 6 years perfecting this plant.

Simon’s idea was to put together a diverse group of basils, let them cross-pollinate, and see what happened. He and his staff rounded up eighty different basils—deep purple basils from Iran, treelike green camphor basils from Africa, handsome cinnamon basils with glossy green leaves and dark purple flower spikes, and many others—and grew them together on a plot at Purdue’s O’Neall Vegetable Research Farm. At the end of the season, they gathered seed from the plants and mixed them together in a paper bag.

The following year, they sowed the seeds, and soon the experimental field was full of strange and beautiful basils. The wide sweep of color, form, and bloom in the field suggested basils’ uncommon diversity. Simon prowled the field, checking the form and aroma of every plant, and selected a handful as worthy of further study. One of these was a tall plant with a lemon aroma that later became ‘Sweet Dani’.

The chosen plants were dug up, brought into a greenhouse, and separated to discourage further cross-­pollination. Seed was collected from each plant, and the long process of reselection and stabilization of each plant’s characteristics began. Building up a plentiful supply of reliable seed took many plant generations, and it was several years before ‘Sweet Dani’ was ready for commercial release.

Delaware State University botanist Arthur O. Tucker identified the probable parents of the hybrid, and Simon named his plant to honor his daughter, Daniella.

To Grow

‘Sweet Dani’ is as easy to grow as other basils, either from seed or plants, both of which are readily available in garden centers or by mail order. Start seeds indoors a few weeks before the frost-free date. Keep the seedlings in a warm place and give them plenty of light. Harden them off gradually and wait to transplant them outside until nighttime temperatures are reliably above 55°F.

This is a fast-growing basil with germination happening in as few as three days.  Seedlings grow quickly and can be transplanted as soon as they have 4 true leaves which can happen in two weeks.  As with all basil’s do not transplant them outdoors until all possibility of frost has passed and the overnight temperature does not dip below 40 degrees.  This Lemon Basil will grow to 30 inches tall and 15 inches wide.  They start producing flowers early, small white flowers on 5- to 8-inch spikes, so need to be clipped often.  The mature green leaves are egg-shaped and strongly veined, reaching 2 inches long and 1 1/2 inches wide.

Like other basils, ‘Sweet Dani’ needs full sun for compact, strong growth. Water the plants regularly and fertilize every two weeks and after extensive harvests. Leaves may be harvested regularly, even from young plants, to encourage branching and maximum regrowth and to discourage flower formation.  The finest growth occurs during periods when night temperatures are above 60°F. In most areas of the United States, basils have a limited period of rapid growth.

Basils grow best in a site with daylong sun, but most varieties can subsist on as little as three to four hours of direct sunlight. They will tolerate a wide range of soil conditions but will grow best in a well-drained, loamy, nearly neutral soil (pH 6 to 6.5) that is well endowed with nutrients. Good air circulation discourages fungus diseases.

During their summer growth, basil plants are desperate to flower and set seed. That’s the way to preserve the species, and it may help farmers and florists, but it sure cuts down on the amount of pesto that can be made from a single plant. As soon as stems begin flowering, their foliage production ends; however, home gardeners can combat basils’ drive for flowers by pruning plants heavily to keep them producing foliage all summer. Start pruning when the plant has six to eight pairs of leaves. Don’t just nip the flowers as they form; instead clip off all but two to four leaves. Within as little as three weeks, the pruned stem will have regrown two to four new, harvestable branches.


Sprinkle leaves or flowers in salads, steep them in hot water for a tea, or add them to dishes that call for basil or lemon, such as fish and chicken. Add basil at the end of the cooking period to retain as much flavor as possible.

Basil is best when used minutes after it is picked. To keep basil fresh for a day or two, place the stems in a jar of water away from sunlight. To have it fresh for seven to ten days, cover the jar and stems loosely with a plastic bag and place in the refrigerator.
Keeping basil for longer periods of time can be a problem. Freezing turns the leaves dark and flavorless.

Perhaps the best way for most people to preserve their basil harvest is to make and freeze batches of wonderfully flavorful pesto, which can be thawed easily and used in many ways. When freezing pesto, leave out the garlic; instead, chop and add some fresh garlic when you’re ready to use the pesto. Adding a small amount of chopped fresh parsley to the thawed pesto will give it a greener, fresher taste; you can also add more Parmesan cheese.

Basil is also traditionally preserved by hanging in bundles to dry or by laying stems on screens in a well-­ventilated spot away from direct sun. When they are crispy, strip the leaves from the stems, pack the whole dried leaves in clean jars with tight lids, and store them in a cool, dark place for as long as a year. Always dry your basil leaves whole, then crumble them into your preparation as needed. Once crushed, dried leaves lose their essential oils and ­fragrance rapidly.

Cooks around the world use basil with fresh and cooked vegetables, in ­salads, with eggs, meats, and seafood, in soups and breads, with all kinds of cheeses, and for seasoning vinegars and oils. Accompanied by fresh tomato slices, it is wonderful in a sandwich in place of lettuce, and it adds a pleasant flavor to butter, vinaigrettes, marinades, and sauces.

Cook fresh basil only briefly or add it as a garnish to long-simmered ­dishes. In some recipes, such as in pesto, dried basil just won’t work: the fresh herb is essential. Otherwise, when substituting dried basil for fresh, use only about a third as much as you would fresh. It is always best to season lightly at first, taste, and then add more dried basil if ­necessary.

If a recipe calls for packed basil leaves, press them down in the measuring cup to measure.

You can use any basil you choose to make pesto, so using a lemon basil will give you a sweeter less pungent pesto.  I much prefer it to regular basil pesto, especially as a topping on chicken or in a pasta served with chicken. Traditionally, pesto is served with flat noodles such as trenette, fettuccine, or linguine. Try it also as a tasty sauce for grilled or roasted fish and vegetables, or as a savory garnish for vegetable soups such as minestrone. Mix equal parts of sour cream to pesto to create a smooth green dip for crudités.

Lemon Basil Pesto

3 c. packed fresh lemon basil leaves
1 c. fresh loosely packed parsley
3/4 c. grated parmesan cheese
1 T. olive oil
3 T. pine nuts

Place all above ingredients into blender, except cheese.  Blend thoroughly and add cheese.  Blend well again.  Stir into warm pasta or spread over chicken and fish in the last few minutes of cooking.  Pour olive oil over surface until covered to store in refrigerator for up to 3 weeks.  You can freeze the pesto once the oil covers the top and keep it for about 3 months.


1/3 c. lemon basil leaves
1 small clove garlic, minced
1/2 t. finely chopped fresh oregano or 1/5 t. dried
3 T. olive oil
2 T. vegetable oil
1 1/2 T. fresh lemon juice
1/4 c. freshly grated Parmesan cheese
freshly ground pepper
optional: 1/4 c. pine nuts

Combine ingredients in blender and blend unto emulsified.  Serve over fresh lettuce.

Lemon Basil Butter
Great on cooked vegetables or pasta or on top of poached eggs or fish.

1/2 c. butter, at room temperature
2 t. lemon juice
1 T. chopped fresh parley
3 T. chopped fresh lemon basil
salt and pepper to taste (optional)

Cream the butter and beat in the lemon juice a little at a time.  Beat in the parsley and basil and season.  Serve in a serving dish or place on wax paper and roll in a log. Chill overnight and slice and serve.  Butter can also be frozen for up to two months without loosing flavor.

Lemon Basil Fruit Salad

2 cups fresh raspberries or blackberries
2 cups fresh strawberries - hulled and sliced
One (15 ounce) can mandarin oranges - drained
One (20 ounce) can pineapple chunks - drained
2 tablespoons white grape juice
¼ cup fresh lemon basil, minced

Place all the ingredients into a large bowl and mix well. Chill in the refrigerator until ready to serve.

Lemon Basil Facial Mask

handful of lemon basil leaves
1/2 of an avocado
1 tsp. lemon juice
1 tsp. honey

Pulverize the fresh lemon basil leaves in a blender or food processor. Peel the avocado and mash. Add avocado to basil in blender, along with lemon juice and honey.  Blend until smooth.

Smear this mixture all over your face, don't get too close to your eyes.  Then leave on 15 to 30 minutes or as long as you want.  Rinse off with lukewarm water.  Follow with a moisturizer. 

** Some of the information on the history of this basil came from a 1998 article by Thomas DiBaggio in Herb Companion Magazine.

To obtain good seed for Sweet Dani, I recommend the Territorial Seed Company

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