Basil Seedlings Have Disappointing Scent
Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: Sonia Day
Posted on: March 5, 2003

I planted some sweet basil seeds under lights. (Seed I got from you, a couple of years ago.) They’re doing fine, but they don’t taste or smell of basil! They taste like grass – lawn grass, I mean, not marijuana. They smelt vaguely of basil when they first popped up, but the scent has completely gone now.

What’s the problem? Are the seeds too old? Have they mutated into something else? I am very perplexed.

It can’t be mutation or anything like that. At least from our experience it couldn’t. Basil seeds last for years – at least five years – and we never see any degration in the scent or flavour, just degradation in the germination rate as seeds age.

If this is a batch of seed you have grown before and liked and now find that it is disappointing, then I would say that the problem is almost certainly something to do with the environmental or cultural conditions. Insufficient light is the number one suspect; but too much water is high up there too. I would try changing the conditions by moving to a brighter, perhaps drier and warmer situation, and watch for changes in the scent and flavour. As a general rule, aromatic plants such as basil produce their characteristic oils in greatest abundance in response to sunny, hot and dry conditions.

If you have never grown the seeds from this batch before, then there is the possibility that the variety is not what you are used to (though I really don’t think that this is the answer). There are dozens of varieties of basil in an incredible range of flavours and scents. I often find myself questioning what really is the quintessential ‘basil’ scent and flavour after sampling the range of scents during one of our regular trials. There are so many component scents of basil, from clove and cinnamon to anise and camphor even, so any variation in the mix of these oils results in a different basil variety.

Environmental stress, such as a lack of light, can alter the balance between these component oils too, which is another reason why I think the problem is 90% likely to be environmental. If I am right, you should find that the scent will get stronger as the plant grows and matures.

I hope that helps. If you like, you can send me some of the leftover seeds and we will grow them here in the greenhouse for comparison. Sometimes speculating and guessing is bested by rolling up the sleeves and seeing for oneself what the truth of the matter is.

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