If you never experienced your basil bolting, then probably you are not planting enough basil! They bolt quite often, especially during hot summers. But if you want to keep your plants ready for harvest for a longer time, there are two simple and easy ways to keep basil from flowering completely. Help your basil continue putting out new delicious foliage too!
Flowering in live basil plants can be inhibited by 1) regularly pruning terminal growth on its main stems and 2) pinching off budding flower spikes as they develop. When basil does flower, its spikes can be trimmed off for floral arrangements or used for cooking. Its blossoms may also be left on the plant until it goes to seed.
The truth of the matter is flowering is a natural point in any plant’s life cycle. In the event that you do forget to remove your basil’s flower spikes, it’s not the end of the world! Learn what to do when basil flowers as you read ‘til the end.
1. Regular Pruning
Pruning basil on its main stem regularly after it grows to at least 4–6 inches stops it from producing flowers early. The pruning, to promote side shoots, should be done just above a node in the stem.
If you’ve grown tomatoes at home before and are only growing basil for the first time, you would need to do the exact opposite when pruning them.
Rather than always trimming off the leafy side shoots of your basil so that it will redirect its energy into producing flowers, you need to encourage your lovely herb to grow out more!
But preventing your basil from growing taller by pruning regularly, the shoots popping out by the sides of the main stem to grow more leaves and stems.
Make sure to at least leave 2–4 leaves or 1 node with 2 side shoots on the trimmed basil so that it can recover before pruning or harvesting it again. I don’t recommend cutting more than 1/3 of each stem.
In other words, it focuses its resources on becoming more bushy—which is what you want for such a tasty leafy herb.
You can do this by hand, which is what I typically do. Nevertheless, you can always use a regular pair of garden scissors for a cleaner cut. Then, in about just a week, you can expect to see new growth!
Why don’t you try your hand at growing a basil bonsai too?
2. Flower Pinching
Flower bud spikes should be pinched off the basil plant as soon as they form to prevent it from developing further, blooming, and also keeps the herb from bolting.
I know that some people—mainly newbie home gardeners—may mistake the young flower buds off basil plants for much smaller leaves.
So they mistakenly try to look for solutions to make their basil grow bigger and better-tasting leaves without realizing that that’s not actually the issue at hand that they should focus on!
But if you look closely, you’ll notice that the immature flower spike forms a somewhat conical shape. It not only has tiny leaves on it but also a cluster of cute little circular buds growing around it.
Don’t fret though, there’s a simple fix for this!
Just check your basil plants for any buds popping out so you can remove them as they grow. You can also inhibit both flowering and bolting by doing so.
Most, if not all, varieties of basil typically start growing flower buds around summer due to the heat so keep an eye out for them by then.
Keep in mind, however, that your basil plant will naturally, eventually, grow clusters of buds again. In short, you will likely need to do this more than once during the growing period.
What Happens When Basil Flowers?
When a basil plant is left to flower the following are to be expected: 1) leaves turn bitter, 2) flowers attract pollinators, and 3) basil goes to seed.
To be perfectly clear, it is totally natural for basil and most other herbs to flower at some point in their lives.
But depending on why you’re growing them, you may be left with no other choice but to start from scratch again due to unwanted changes in your basil due to its flowers.
1. Bitter Leaves
When you’re growing basil for cooking—pesto, pizza, or what have you—then you should stop your basil from flowering.
You see, it’s inevitable for a flowering basil plant to bolt which makes its leaves bitter and unappetizing for most people. Personally, I don’t mind it but to each their own.
The same thing happens with most other herbs and leafy vegetables such as spinach.
Curious about the underlying causes? Here are the reasons why basil tastes bitter!
Having said all of that, yes—you can still eat basil leaves after it Flowers. The problem is that it won’t taste the best anymore. It can turn become tougher than younger tender leaves.
2. Helpful Pollinators
If you leave your basil to flower and put on a magnificent show, it will inevitably attract a wide variety of pollinators and other beneficial insects to come and pay a visit to your garden.
Basil is a leafy herb that can attract different bees and butterflies with tiny whorls of flowers on its long spikes.
Make the most of basil flowers by planting different varieties at home. Get some opal or cinnamon basil for pink flowers, or go for Thai basil for purple flowers.
3. New Seeds
Planning to grow basil in the next growing season but you don’t want to buy new seed packets?
Then, just let your basil bolt and collect the seeds once the flowers are spent—all brown and dry. Keep collected seeds cool in air-tight containers so they stay good for years to come.
I strongly recommend you do this—especially if you already have the variety you want in your garden and you’re sure that they won’t survive the harsh winter in your area.
When you do have multiple basil varieties growing at the same time, keep them at least 150 ft (approx. 45 m) from each other to prevent cross-pollination.
Can You Eat Basil Flowers?
Basil flowers are safe to eat as long as they have not been sprayed with chemical pesticides. They can be infused into vinegar, mixed into sauces, blended into fruit shakes, and brewed for tea.
Do keep in mind that different varieties can have varying flavor profiles. So consider that if you plan on adding basil flowers to your recipe.
Just to give you a few examples:
- Cinnamon basil is spicy
- Lemon basil is a bit tangy
- Opal basil is earthy and savory
- Sweet basil is mild-tasting
- Thai basil taste strongly of licorice
I honestly haven’t cooked with basil flowers before since I do prefer growing them for their lovely leaves, but my friends say that they’re great for pesto too.
Others also blend them into their morning smoothies and refreshing fruit shakes and juices to make them even healthier. Basil flowers are also great for making herb-infused vinegar. They also make for beautiful garnish!
In any case, don’t cook with basil flowers that have been applied with systemic pesticides as they are absorbed internally by the plant and can’t just be washed off.
Aside from cooking, you can also add freshly cut basil flower spikes together with other flowers you have in your garden for a vibrant but homey arrangement. Then when it dries, you can use them for potpourris.
Does basil die after flowering?
It’s normal for basil to die after flowering. This is because once basil flowers, it will no longer produce new shoots and leaves. Instead, it will divert all its resources into ensuring its flower bloom completely and seeds afterward to ensure that new plants will grow after it dies off.
Are there basil varieties that don’t flower?
One type of basil that doesn’t flower at all is called Pesto Perpetuo. This upright basil variety can grow up to about 16 inches (40 cm) and continuously put out variegated 2-inch (5 cm) ovate leaves. Regardless of the temperature or season, it will not produce flower spikes.
Summary of Ways to Prevent Basil Flowering
It is fairly easy to prevent the basil from flowering while inducing branching and the production of more leaves. This can be done by regularly pruning the plant and immediately pinching off tiny flower bud clusters as they develop by hand or with garden scissors.
Once a basil plant is allowed to flower, home gardeners will only be harvesting bitter leaves. However, basil flowers can also draw bees, butterflies, and beneficial insects. Then the seeds can be collected and saved once the flowers have dried up and turned brown.
- “Growing basil in home gardens” by Marissa Schuh and Shirley Mah Kooyman in the University of Minnesota Extension
- “Basil” by Joey Williamson in Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service
- “Basil Garden” by Kate Ryan in Washington State University Extension
- “Edible flowers” by Julie Weisenhorn and Ginny Coyle in the University of Minnesota Extension