An everlasting source for caprese salad: African blue basil — and a gardening friend who's got it

Published Jan. 12, 2012

Judy Benning and I bonded over African blue basil. She had it. I wanted it. That makes for the start of a beautiful relationship.

I'd written a column in October about using herbs in the landscape. One of the people I talked to, a Miami horticulturist who specializes in unusual landscape plants, heartily recommended African blue basil, a perennial shrub with striking lavender flower spikes. I'd never heard of it.

If you grow the more common Italian sweet basil, you know you've got to nip it in the bud when it starts flowering. Pretty as those blooms are, if you don't pinch them off, your sweet basil's doomed. Mine's always doomed anyway. Once sweet basil starts flowering, it gets darned stubborn about it. I lose.

African blue, on the other hand, requires no pinching. You can have your herb and admire it, too. And whereas sweet basil is a smallish plant, African blue grows to about 3 feet tall and 3 feet around. And it likes us! It was a Florida Garden Select choice in 2006, which means the Florida Landscape, Growers and Nursery Association thinks it's a wonderful, Florida-friendly plant.

It's also hard to find. Which makes African blue all the more attractive to me and my gardening buddies. We all want the next great plant that no one else has. Once we get it, we love passing it around until everyone we know has it. It's the Gardener's Law of Exclusive Mass Consumption — and, yes, it makes perfect sense to us.

After the herbs-in-the-landscape column, Judy sent me an email:

"A few weeks ago you wrote about African blue basil. I have a bountiful supply and would be glad to share some! I just rooted some and potted it this morning, if you would like it."

How sweet is that?! When I emailed back, I told Judy she was going to make me very popular — I had friends clamoring for this new basil.

"I'll root some more," she responded.

I finally met Judy and her husband and fellow gardener, Mike, over New Year's weekend. They live in New Suburb Beautiful in South Tampa and they have an amazing backyard container garden, including loads of hard-to-find herbs.

Judy's a big fan of African blue. She found it years ago at a little Tampa garden shop that's no longer with us.

"African blue basil is the gift that keeps on giving," she says. "I had it for 10 years before the bad winter" — those horrible freezes of January 2010. "Now, I drape a sheet over it if there's a heavy frost, and it goes on and on and on."

Judy also found a new supplier, Seminole Springs Antique Rose and Herb Forum in Eustis. She recommends navigational aids if you plan to visit, but the very nice proprietor also does mail-order (

I read that African blue has a strong flavor, almost like cloves, so I wasn't sure I'd be a culinary fan. But Judy says the taste is almost indistinguishable from other basils. She uses it for her caprese salads and mixes it with her Greek basil and sweet basil in cooking.

The bees go nuts for it, she adds. A couple other pointers: If it gets leggy and scraggly, cutting it back won't "reboot" it like so many of our other plants. But it roots very easily, so Judy just trims hers and sticks the clippings in the dirt at the base.

She and Mike moved to Tampa from Atlanta 27 years ago with their two children, then ages 4 and 11. Back then, their back yard was all grass. As the kids got older, the grass came out.

Mike grew hybrid tea roses in one area for a while, and they tried other plants in the ground, but the soil wasn't cooperative. They gradually moved to an almost all-container garden.

"It's great. When a plant dies, you just pull it out and put in another one," Judy says.

"We have about 50 containers," Mike says. "The only issue is irrigation. We hand-water when we're at home, and we have an irrigation system with adjustable valves that we use when we're out of town."

They also use Miracle-Gro Moisture Control Potting Mix to maximize water retention.

They have lemon and lime trees in containers and broccoli, cabbage and snow peas in the ground. Judy's sweet pea vine — which produces flowers, not peas — has no problem with the soil and is hard at work trying to cover their back fence.

I really liked that sweet pea vine, Lathyrus odoratus. It's another I'd never heard of, though it's an heirloom plant that has been around for a few hundred years. Judy says hers loves the sun, dies in the cold but returns every spring. And it's covered with unusual purple and yellow blooms, especially in the summer.

I just bet my friends don't have it.

I departed the Bennings with two pots of beautiful African blue basil and a gallon bag of sweet pea vine seeds.

We've bonded.

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