Mrs. Burns' Famous Lemon Basil

Botanical name:

Ocimum basilicum

Collection site:

Carlsbad, New Mexico

Collection date:

1983

Historical origins:

Basil is thought to be native to tropical regions of Asia, having been domesticated there around 5,000 years ago. This variety found its way to New Mexico within the last hundred years.

Culinary uses:

Mrs. Burns’ Lemon Basil has a distinctive lemon flavor that adds brightness to pesto, pasta sauces, soups and salads.

Socio-cultural importance:

The story of Mrs Burns’ Famous Lemon Basil serves as a reminder of the vulnerability of heirloom crops to extinction. This basil was stewarded by Janet Ann Burns, mother of Barney T Burns, who was one of the founders of Native Seeds/SEARCH. In 1951, Janet and Barney moved to Carlsbad, New Mexico, where Janet started a backyard garden. She met a local lady, Mrs. Clifton, who was a legendary gardener in the area. Mrs Clifton gifted Janet some lemon basil seeds, which she had been saving since the 1920's and apparently grew very well in Carlsbad. This basil became a firm favorite in Janet’s garden and was much used in her cooking.

When Barney moved away to study at the University of Arizona in 1963, he brought some of his Mom’s special basil seed to experiment with. The basil did well and Barney began his own seed collection. Many years later, Janet and Mrs Clifton lost all their basil plants in a late frost, and had no seed in reserve. Barney, having saved seeds from his basil, was able to replenish their supply. Had Barney not saved his seeds, this unique variety of basil may have become extinct. When Native Seeds/SEARCH was founded in 1983, Mrs Burns Famous Lemon Basil was one of the first seeds to be added to the collection, and is now enjoyed by gardeners all over the United States and further afield.

Cultivation techniques:

This basil can be planted about a ¼ inch deep in the spring and kept watered or with the summer monsoon rains. It is very heat and drought-tolerant and readily self-seeds, but does not survive frost.

References:

Burns, Barney T. (2008). A Short History of Mrs Burns' Famous Lemon Basil. The Seedhead News: 103.

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