What Is Lemon Basil?

Andy Hill

The hybrid basil Ocmimum x citriodorum, commonly known as lemon basil, is a culinary herb created through the amalgamation of African basil (Ocmimum americanum) and common basil (Ocmimum basilicum). It is widely used in Thai and Indonesian cuisine for its strong lemon scent. The plant is grown throughout north Africa and southern Asia and has narrower leaves than most other basil varieties. Almost all parts of the plant are used in cooking with the exception of the woody stem. Even the sun-dried seeds that are created following the late summer flowering of the plant are soaked in water before being used to create Thai dessert dishes.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

Lemon basil is a tropical plant and, as such, requires high levels of sunlight in addition to the usual care required in the cultivation of basil. Although the herb is hardy, the levels of flavor can be compromised unless cared for correctly, watered regularly, and provided with the requisite fertilizer. Lemon basil can grow in a matter of weeks, reaching a height of approximately six inches (15.2 centimeters) after a period of three to four weeks from seed sowing.

The first harvesting should ideally occur at this point to allow the plant to regenerate the initial growth. Regular harvesting — generally on a weekly basis — encourages bushier growth patterns in the plant. During the harvesting period, lemon basil is prevented from going into seed, which can negatively impact the flavor of the herb and the texture of the leaves. Toward the end of the harvesting period, the herb is generally left to flower and go to seed. These seeds are collected either for culinary use or to create the next crop of the herb as the plant will be killed by winter frost.

The culinary uses of lemon basil are the main reason for its cultivation; indeed, it is one of the only forms of basil utilized in Indonesian cooking. In Thai cuisine, the herb is used in various curry and noodle dishes, and the sun-dried seeds from the plant are soaked to create sweet desserts. In addition to these uses, Indonesian cooking also sees lemon basil utilized in soups, steamed dishes, and even eaten raw as part of a larger salad. The herb is also regularly used in Arabian and Persian cuisine. In western Europe and America, lemon basil is less popular as a culinary herb with basic herb varieties being utilized more commonly than hybrid herbs.

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