Planting Basil? NC State Extension Master Gardener Volunteers Recommend These Varieties!

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Caprese salad

Caprese salad is one of many favorite dishes made with fresh basil.

Are you eager to serve caprese salad made with basil harvested from your own garden? Good news! Now that spring is here and the threat of frost is over, it’s time to plant sweet basil. This easy to grow culinary herb can be harvested throughout summer and fall. However, the harvest season can be cut short by a disease known as basil downy mildew. 

About Basil Downy Mildew
Basil downy mildew (BDM) is caused by a fungal-like organism that reproduces from spores that are spread by the wind. The disease doesn’t survive the winter in North Carolina, but wind-blown spores bring it into our area from further south most years. BDM typically starts to develop on basil plants in North Carolina in mid to late summer. Once here, BDM can decimate basil plants quickly, leaving you without fresh basil for your favorite dishes. 

Basil downy mildew on basil.

Yellowing and browning of leaf tissue is an early sign of BDM infection. Image Sam Boring

While fungicides available to home gardeners have little effect on controlling this disease, new BDM resistant varieties offer the promise of a season-long basil harvest. But how do these new disease resistant varieties compare in taste and garden performance to ‘Genovese,’ the tried and true favorite of cooks and gardeners that is unfortunately highly susceptible to BDM?

Extension Master Gardener℠ Volunteers Investigate
To answer these questions, over 80 NC State Extension Master Gardener volunteers helped conduct a basil variety trial last summer. Working with horticulture agents at their local N.C. Cooperative Extension county center, Master Gardener volunteers in 18 counties from the mountains to the coast grew both ‘Genovese’ and the BDM resistant basil varieties ‘Rutgers Obsession,’ ‘Rutgers Devotion,’ ‘Rutgers Thunderstruck,’ ‘Rutgers Passion,’ and ‘Prospera’ as part of a research project with the NC State Department of Horticultural Science.

‘Genovese’ and the five BDM resistant varieties were planted in randomized plots that Master Gardener volunteers examined weekly for symptoms of BDM. A taste test was also conducted as part of the research project. 

Carteret County's basil downy mildew test plot.

Basil downy mildew test plot in Carteret County. Image by Lora Fasolino, Master Gardener volunteer.

Recommended Varieties
In basil test plots across North Carolina, the BDM resistant varieties in the trial stayed disease free, unlike ‘Genovese,’ which started developing BDM in August and September. In taste tests, the five BDM resistant varieties rated similar to ‘Genovese’, with ‘Rutgers Obsession’ rating highest when used in Caprese salad. Of the resistant varieties, ‘Prospera’, ‘Rutgers Passion’, and ‘Rutgers Obsession’ were the favorites among Master Gardener volunteers, who made these observations on their garden performance:

  • ‘Prospera’ – Growing taller and more upright than other varieties, Prospera was the overall favorite among the BDM-resistant cultivars. Some thought it needed staking because of its taller stature and a few volunteers reported stems breaking during storms.
  • ‘Rutgers Passion’ – This variety received positive comments on its color, aroma, plant vigor, and good branching habit. 
  • ‘Rutgers Obsession’ – There was overall satisfaction with this cultivar based on its color and slightly more compact growth habit. It proved to be a solid BDM-resistant alternative to ‘Genovese’ and was the highest rated variety in taste tests.

For season long success, ask for these disease resistant varieties at your local nurseries. When shopping for specific varieties, keep in mind that much of the basil sold at big box stores is likely to simply be labeled “sweet basil” and not include a variety name. It may be easier to find named varieties at independent nurseries that either grow their own plants or work with local growers to source the plants they sell. Basil is also quick and easy to grow from seed and these resistant varieties are available online from several seed companies.

Many thanks to the N.C. Cooperative Extension agents and Master Gardener volunteers and in the following counties for their help conducting this research project! 

Ashe Brunswick Cabarrus Carteret Chatham Chowan
Davidson Harnett Haywood Hoke Montgomery Nash
Pender Perquimans Scotland Union Wayne Wilson

Funding for this project was provided by NC State Extension through the Consumer and Youth Horticulture Working Group. Seeds of all varieties grown in the trial were donated by Johnny’s Select Seed. 

About the NC State Extension Master Gardener Program 

Extension Master Gardener volunteers connect people with the benefits of gardening through science-based education and outreach that empowers North Carolinians to cultivate healthy plants, landscapes, ecosystems, and communities. 

Learn more about how you can be part of the NC State Extension Master Gardener program!