Types of Basil

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Thai basil – Characterized by its strong licorice fragrance and flavor, this annual is also referred to as anise or licorice basil. It reaches heights up to 24 inches and with a nearly two-foot expanse. Great for stir-fried dishes, Thai basil is more easily found in specialty grocery stores that carry exotic or high-end fresh herbs.

    Genovese basil photo courtesy of thefoodgeek at flickr.com.

Genovese basil – A well-regarded favorite among foodies, Genovese basil is considered the best basil for use in Italian recipes (pesto, tomato-basil sauce, Caprese salad, etc.) Like sweet basil, this annual has a strong clove fragrance and ranges from 12 to 24 inches in height, but is easily distinguished by its more crinkly and in-turned leaves.

Lemon basil – Similar to the other basils, this annual grows to a height of about two feet, but complements salads, dressing and teas with a savory lemon flavor and fragrance. This basil is a bit spindlier than its other basil relatives and is characterized by a flatter, narrower leaf.

Cinnamon basil – The name describes it all – basil with a cinnamon flavor. As you can imagine, its strong cinnamon scent easily distinguishes it from the others. It also has a somewhat harrier leaf. This medium-sized annual grows up to 2 ½ feet tall and produces pale pink to purple flowers. Enjoy!

Perilla, Shisho (a basil relative) – There are a few kinds of perilla but this species, with green leaves and purple spots is perhaps the best for cooking. Used most often in Asian cuisine, Shisho has a cinnamon-lemon flavor. Perilla frutecens var “autopurpurea” (also known as a beefsteak plant) is an interesting relative that I’ve included here because of its much stronger licorice flavor that some cooks thoroughly enjoy.

Because it is often confused with coleus, it can double as ornamental basil. Please give all types of perilla plenty of room to roam. Even though it’s an annual, it spreads (without mercy!) from seed. This very aggressive species is a great plant for people with brown thumbs.

Ornamental basil plants

Basil: It’s not just for dinner any more! Many gardeners don’t realize that one of the best uses for basil is that of an ornamental in their landscape. Ornamental basil is colorful, attracts beneficial insects and is heat tolerant. Additionally, most can be used in the same fashion as many sun-loving coleus as they all belong to the mint family. While the basils discussed below are recommended primarily for their decorative properties, most can also double as a culinary spice.

    Siam queen basil photo courtesy of powercat75 at flickr.com.

Siam queen basil – A personal favorite, Siam queen is a type of Thai basil that produces mint green leaves with very large flower heads – up to 6 inches across – that give off a spicy anise scent. (It might seem strange, but it smells great!) It reaches heights up to 2 ½ feet, but it can be pinched back – and even eaten! – to restrict growth.

Dark opal basil – Dark opal resembles a glossy-leafed, burgundy-and-purple coleus with pink flowers. While this two-foot annual is great for landscapes, it can also add a hint of exotic color to culinary favorites such as Italian Caprese or spring garden salads.

Purple ruffles basil photo courtesy of habitatgirl at flickr.com.

Purple ruffles basil – This is a great plant to spice up the kitchen and the landscape! Perhaps the most colorful basil for landscapes, purple ruffles makes a great addition to salads and pesto. Similar in color to the dark opal, this plant is slightly smaller in stature (reaches up to 1 ½ feet) and its leaves are very frilly and ruffled. While it can handle a shadier spot in the garden, it still needs at least three hours of sunlight to mature properly. Purple ruffles gives off a combination of licorice and cinnamon scents and produces lavender and pink flowers that can also be eaten. Somewhat difficult to start from seeds, this plants works best from transplants.

    African blue basil photo, courtesy of chuck b. at flickr.com.

African blue basil – While not recommended for culinary uses, African blue basil is more often used as an ornamental. Besides, you’ll be so proud of this one, it would pain you to eat it! A properly tended plant with plenty of room to expand can easily become a grand showpiece in your late spring or early summer garden, making itself the center of conversation among your guests. In zones 9 (maybe 8A) and warmer, given the right protection, this beauty can sometimes transform itself into a cherished perennial.

Because it can mature to four feet, African blue basil works best at the back of an annual border. Its wonderful pink and purple flowers with purple stems and leaves add to its desirability. In fact, many gardeners choose this basil in place of pink- or purple-flowering sage. There’s no need to be afraid of this plants ample volume as, like most basils, it is easily trimmed back.

    Holy basil photo, courtesy of Terling at flickr.com.

Holy basil – The attractive green and purple foliage of this perennial, combined with a strong showing of pink and white flowers, make this is an ideal landscape addition. Reaching heights up to three feet with a two-foot span, this hairy-leafed plant produces a fragrant clove scent. While holy basil can be used for culinary purposes in cooked foods, its hairy leaves and woodier stems make it difficult for use as a fresh herb. Holy basil stands the best chance for returning year after year in zones 9 or warmer.

Perilla (a basil relative ) – Perilla frutecens var “crispa” and “autopurpurea” are also interesting relatives of basil that can be used as ornamentals. Autopurpurea is almost entirely purple while crispa has very frilly, divided leaves. Both of these plants can take a little more shade than regular basil, but you shouldn’t expect it to develop the best flavor without more sunlight. Like its relatives, it needs plenty of growing space as it also spreads wildly from seed. Another great plant for the brown-thumbed gardener.