Basil is one of the most commonly used culinary herbs on earth, and most of us are familiar with it due to its use in popular recipes such as Italian pesto. However, throughout its long history with mankind, fresh basil has been used (and in some cases is still used) in a wide variety of applications ranging from the traditional and folk medicines and religious rites of some cultures to its use as an insect repellant and a component of the embalming process for the dead.
Botanically speaking, basil is a member of the Lamiaceae – more commonly known as the mint – family of flowering plants with most specific species residing in the Ocimum genus. Its close relatives include sage, rosemary, and lavender. Depending on the cultivar, basil plants will grow from less than a foot to almost 5 feet tall. While most parts of the plant including stems, seeds and flowers can be utilized for culinary and/or medicinal purposes, the leaves are the part of the basil plant most commonly used in cooking and will have a wide range of flavors depending on the specific type. Basil is a warm weather plant and most cultivars cannot tolerate frost. Most of the fresh basil you will find at the market is green, although there are a number of highly valued cultivars that have purple-toned leaves.
Basil is believed to have originated in India and Southeast Asia and has been cultivated by humans there for well over 6,000 years. As well as its use as a culinary herb, the plant has been used in India in traditional Ayurvedic medicine since around 3,000 BC (and in traditional Chinese medicine for almost as long) to treat a plethora of conditions including indigestion, heart disease, and malaria. Spreading throughout the Ancient world through trade, both the Egyptians and the Greeks attached religious as well as culinary significance to the herb, using it in their preparations of the dead and believing that it helped speed the deceased to the afterlife. The Ancient Hebrews believed that the herb gave one strength while fasting, while the early Christian church also incorporated it into some of their rituals. Spreading throughout Europe during the Middle Ages, Basil probably found its way to the New World with Spanish missionaries in the early 16th century.
Today, basil is commercially cultivated throughout the world and on every continent except Antarctica, and grows wild in many tropical and subtropical regions. While no exact production numbers are available (basil is lumped in with other herbs for statistical purposes) major producing countries include the United States, Mexico, Indonesia, Egypt, France, Italy, South Africa, Israel, and Greece. In the United States California, Florida, Arizona, New Mexico, and North Carolina are the major producers. Basil is also a favorite with home gardeners throughout the world and is widely grown in outdoor gardens in the warmer months, as well as indoors. As it cannot tolerate cold temperatures, the plant is often started inside in colder areas and transplanted to the garden in the spring.
Along with its purported medicinal qualities, basil is high in vitamins A, B6, B9, C and K, as well as calcium, iron, manganese, and copper. There are well over 100 different cultivars of basil, and their flavors can vary greatly. Basil is usually used fresh as – unlike many other herbs – it will not retain its flavor well when dried.
So what are some of the types of fresh basil available today?
Also sometimes called Italian or simply basil, Sweet basil is probably the most commonly cultivated variety of basil in the world, and what you will most often find at your local food store or farmers market. It is also one of the most popular herbs with home growers, due both to how easy it is to grow and the fact that its scent is believed to be a natural mosquito (and some other pesky insects) repellent.
The Sweet basil plant will normally grow to between 18 and 30 inches tall and up to about 18 inches wide. The leaves are cupped and rounded at the ends, will usually grow to between 2 and 4 inches long, and have a medium, often quite vibrant green color. The leaves are very aromatic and can be picked and used from when they are about half an inch all the way through to maturity. They have a relatively sweet, mildly peppery flavor with a hint of cloves.
Sweet basil is widely used in Italian and other Western European cuisines in soups, stews, as a garnish or seasoning – particularly with chicken, fish and pasta dishes – on pizza and, of course, in pesto. A delicate herb, Sweet basil is usually added to dishes near the end of – or after – the cooking process. It is best used fresh, as it will lose much of its flavor and aroma when dried. Sweet basil will grow as an annual in gardens in most parts of the world when the weather is warm and will thrive with very little care as long as it is not regularly exposed to temperatures below about 40 degrees F.
Running a fairly close second – at least in the Western world – to Sweet basil, Genovese probably originated in the Mediterranean region and is named for the city of Genoa in Northern Italy. Widely cultivated throughout Western Europe, the Mediterranean, South America, parts of Asia and the United States, Genovese is another type of ‘sweet’ basil and is a bit more cold-hardly than some other cultivars. It is very adaptable, and suitable for home growing both inside and out.
The Genovese plant will usually grow to between 14 and 24 inches high and well over a foot wide and will reach maturity about 60 days after planting. The quite tender leaves will grow to about 3 inches and are dark green, flat, and come to a point at the end. The flavor and aroma are similar to that of Sweet basil, although somewhat more intense and spicy. The flowers are also often used in culinary preparations, although they are not quite as flavorful. Fresh Genovese basil can be used in most of the same applications as Sweet basil and is preferred by some cooks looking for a stronger basil flavoring in their dishes. Genovese basil is popular in Italian, Western European, and some Asian cuisines.
Also called Sweet Thai and Bai Horapha in Thailand, Thai basil is native to Southeast Asia and is still predominantly grown there as well as in parts of China, the Middle East, and South America. A relatively delicate plant, Thai basil cannot tolerate cold at all, and requires a hot, humid, tropical or subtropical environment in which to thrive, making it quite challenging for home gardeners in most parts of the US to grow.
Thai basil plants grow as a small shrub with multiple branches and will normally reach between 12 and 16 inches high. The bright green, narrow arrow-shaped leaves will normally reach about 2 inches, are attached to purple stems, and have a quite strong, spicy flavor with hints of licorice and anise. The leaves keep their favor during cooking better than most other basil types and are widely used in Thai, Vietnamese, and some other Asian cuisines. After bolting, the plant produces lavender and deep purple flowers which retain the taste of the leaves and are used both in cooking and as highly aromatic bouquets.
Also frequently called Italian Large Leaf or Lettuce Leaf, Napoletano basil is native to the area surrounding Naples (hence the name) in Southern Italy and is widely grown there as well as throughout the Mediterranean region and Southern Europe. More popular in European cuisines than in most other parts of the world, Napoletano is a particularly slow bolting basil variety which makes it quite popular with European gardeners due to its longer harvesting season.
The plant is quite vigorous in its growth cycle, usually growing to about 2 feet tall and 20 inches wide, and produces the largest leaves of any common type of basil. The light green, relatively thick crinkled leaves will usually be about 5 inches long and 3 inches wide and have a strong, somewhat sweet traditional basil aroma and a mild, slightly spicy anise flavor. Napoletano is used like Sweet or Genovese basil in cooked applications and, because of its size and thickness, is often used as a wrap for cheese and other appetizers, fish and poultry. It is also often used as an ingredient in salads, and in milder pesto recipes.
Believed to be native to Northeastern Africa, Lemon basil is widely cultivated throughout Southeast Asia – and particularly Indonesia – and to a lesser extent the United States and Mexico, where it is believed to have been introduced in the late 17th century. The most popular cultivar in the United States is Mrs. Burns’ Lemon, developed and released by Carlsbad, New Mexico gardener Janet Burns in 1939. The plant will grow to between 2 and 3 feet in height, and will normally form a roughly circularly dome of leaves around 18 inches in diameter. The light green, oval leaves will generally be around an inch long and 2 inches wide and have a light, citrusy aroma. The plant also produces delicate white flowers with a lemon scent. Lemon basil has a mild anise flavor with strong lemon overtones and is widely used in fish and poultry dishes, stir-fries, curries, soups and stews, salads and baked goods. Lemon basil is particularly perishable, and will usually only keep for 3 days when refrigerated.
Also often referred to as Mexican Cinnamon and Mexican Spice, Cinnamon basil is probably native to Africa and is widely cultivated throughout Southeast Asia, South America and, as its nicknames indicate, Mexico. It is highly valued by home gardeners throughout the world both for its aroma, and its insect-repelling qualities in the garden. The plant will usually grow up to 3 feet tall and 3 feet wide and produces relatively small, serrated, thin green leaves on violet stems, and lavender flowers. It has a quite strong peppery cinnamon flavor and is widely used in several Asian cuisines as both a garnish and in savory dishes. It is also frequently used in some pasta dishes and salads, as well as in baking and jelly-making. Cinnamon basil was taken into space in 2007 as part of an experimental low-orbit growing program on the International Space Station.
Dark Opal is a hybrid purple basil cultivar developed by horticulturalists at the University of Connecticut and released to the market in the mid-1950s. Currently one of the most popular varieties of purple basil, the plant is extensively grown by home gardeners throughout the world both for its culinary and decorative attributes. A relatively sturdy plant that has some resistance to cold, the Dark Opal will normally grow to about 18 inches tall and produces elongated, dark purple to burgundy colored leaves between 1.5 and 2 inches long with a strong aroma and relatively strong anise flavor with undertones of ginger. It is often used in purple pestos and pasta dishes, as well as salads and as a colorful garnish. It is also used to both flavor and color oils and vinegars, and as an all-around food coloring. It grows well indoors in containers and will hold its flavor better than many other basil varieties when dried.
Also sometimes called Greek Bush or Greek Globe, Greek basil has been used in European cooking for centuries. Native to Southeast Asia and cultivated throughout the Mediterranean and Southern European regions since the Middle Ages, the plant is considered a dwarf; it will normally only grow to between 8 and 10 inches in height, and will usually have a round globe shape of about the same diameter. The pointed green leaves are usually less than half an inch long and after bolting the plant will also produce tiny white or pink flowers. The leaves have a very intense aroma and flavor and are usually used in dishes, soups and stews that call for a stronger basil taste, or as a garnish. Its small size makes it quite popular as an indoor herb plant, and it will thrive when grown near windows with plenty of direct sunlight.
Not as popular (or as easy to find) in North America as it is in some other parts of the world, Lime basil is native to India, Africa, and Southeast Asia, where it is most commonly cultivated and still grows wild. It is also grown in Australia, China, and parts of the US. Closely related to Lemon, the Lime basil plant will grow up to 2 feet tall and produce stalks up to 16 inches long. The light green leaves will normally be around 2 inches long with a strong, sweet citrus aroma and a quite strong lime flavor. Lime basil is often paired with Lemon in cooked applications, while it is also used fresh in salads and as a garnish – particularly with seafood dishes.
A relatively recent basil cultivar, Purple Ruffles is hybrid basil developed by a director of research at the Burpee Seed Company and released to the market in 1984. Considered a ‘sweet’ basil variety, the plant will usually grow to between 15 and 20 inches tall and produces 3-inch purple leaves with a crumpled – or ‘ruffled’ – appearance. The leaves have a quite mild, sweet basil flavor with hints of licorice and cinnamon. It is most often used fresh as a garnish, to add color to green salads and pesto, and is sometimes added to oils or vinegar.
Developed in Israel in the 1950s and grown today throughout the Middle East, parts of Europe, Asia, and the United States, Ararat basil is named after the mountain upon which the Bible says Noah’s Ark landed. The plant will normally grow to a height of about 18 inches and produces a multicolored range of purple and green 2 to 3 inch long leaves attached to deep purple stalks. The tender leaves have a strong anise aroma and a sweet, spicy flavor with licorice undertones. Ararat stands up to cooking reasonable well and can be used in most recipes calling for purple or green basil, although it is most frequently used in salads or as a garnish.
Also called African, Himalayan, East Indian and Tree, Clove basil is native to equatorial Africa and is still grown throughout the continent, as well as in India and Brazil. The plant will grow up to 4 feet tall and produces lime green, elliptical leaves with serrated edges that can grow up to 4 inches long. As the name implies, the leaves have a quite intense clove-like aroma and flavor which also has hints of thyme; the plant also produces small, white edible flowers that have a less intense but more bitter flavor. Clove basil is often used in soups and stews, as well as meat dishes. The plant is also cultivated for its essential oils.
Also widely referred to as Holy Basil, Tulsi is native to the Indian subcontinent where it has been cultivated for at least 6,000 years and is quite probably the first type of basil grown by man. Tulsi – which translates from Sanskrit to ‘the sacred one’ – is cultivated throughout India as well as Southern China, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Thailand. Considered a sacred herb in the Hindu religion, the plant is revered and used in some religious ceremonies. It is also widely utilized in Ayurvedic medicine for the treatment of cold and flu, high blood pressure, stomach ailments, malaria, and inflammation. While it is often used to make medicinal teas it is rarely eaten in its native India, although it is used in some Southeast Asian cuisines.
The Tulsi basil plant is a shrub that will normally grow to about 18 inches high and produces 2 to 3 inch green to purple-tinged leaves (depending on the specific variety) and quite aromatic, elongated purple flowers. The leaves have a quite strong clove-like flavor compared to most other types of basil with undertones of mint, musk and other spices. It is used in stir fry dishes, curries, and soups – particularly in Thailand.