When Thomas Jefferson was serving as U.S. President, his mâitre d'hôtel, Étienne Lemaire, bought basil at the Washington market and it was cooked with venison.1 In a letter written in February 1820, Jefferson's neighbor, George Divers of Farmington, noted that he was not able to supply Jefferson with the pot-herbs "sweet marjoram. sweet basil. or summer savory."2
Ocimum was the Greek word for the aromatic herb called basil in English. Although native to tropical Asia, sweet basil has been cultivated for thousands of years throughout Europe with references in Britain as early as the 1400s.3 Basil was common in America by the late 1700s. Philadelphia nurseryman Bernard McMahon listed basil seed for sale on his 1810 broadsheet.
This is a tender annual herb with aromatic, edible foliage and white flowers in terminal spikes on the branches.
Visit Monticello’s Online Shop to check for seeds or plants of Basil.
Typical Blooming Dates: July through October
Growth Type: Annual
Blossom Color: White
Location at Monticello: Vegetable Garden Terrace
Planting Conditions: Full Sun
- McMahon, Bernard. The American Gardener's Calendar, 1806. Charlottesville: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, 1997. See pp. 191, 317, and 374.
- Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants.
1. Peter Hatch, "Herbs," Monticello Research Report, 3, 4.
2. Divers to Jefferson, February 28, 1820, Coolidge Collection of Thomas Jefferson Manuscripts, Massachusetts Historical Society. Quoted in Betts, Garden Book, 591. Transcription available at Founders Online.
3. Alice M. Coats, Flowers and Their Histories (London: Black, 1968), 292.