Dave Clark, a UF professor, has been working to save the sweet basil plant from a dangerous pathogen for the past three years.
The pathogen, called basil downy mildew, was accidentally imported into the U.S. five years ago and has been spreading throughout the crop ever since, Clark said. It was difficult to manage the plants without pesticides, making organic basil near impossible to produce, he said.
“Since basil is the most popular herb used in America and many parts of the world, the impact has been huge,” Clark, a professor of horticultural breeding and biotechnology, said.
To keep the basil plant alive, Clark and other researchers collected all related basil species they could find and screened them for resistance to basil downy mildew. They found one resistant plant that could be cross-bred with the common sweet basil to make new, stronger hybrids.
Unfortunately, that crossbred species had a bad taste, said Clark, so even after they found the strong plant, Clark kept working to make a new basil hybrid with good flavor.
After three years of work, he said he finally created a new hybrid that is resistant to the disease, grows better than normal sweet basil and tastes the same.
In Clark’s class, Plants, Gardening, and You on Nov. 2, he handed out the hybrid potted basil plant and asked his students to submit a name, said Matthew Mellies, a 19-year-old UF statistics sophomore.
He suggested the name “Leia’s Basil,” named for the “Star Wars” character Princess Leia who led the resistance.
“This breed of basil is extremely resistant, hence the pun,” he said. “I’m jealous of the lucky person that gets to actually put a name on it.”
Clark said even though he does not care what the plant’s name is, his suggestion had the most votes in the class.
“The most important thing is that we end up with a name that can be trademarked without problems and is catchy enough to make people want to buy the plant,” Clark said.
Chloee Collins, a UF botany junior, has been working in Clark’s lab for about a year and a half and began working on the basil project at the beginning of this summer, she said.
She said she appreciates the potential impact the project could have on the culinary and horticultural world.
“Think about all of the dishes that contain basil, it’s one of the most loved culinary herbs,” Collins said. “The widespread infection of downy mildew is impacting the basil market in a serious way.”
Collins said it’s meaningful to work on a project with a potential national and worldwide impact.
“The basil project is an important one, and I feel fortunate to be able to work under Dr. Clark’s expertise to learn and make the best plants possible.”