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Basil Varieties – The Different Types of Basil and their Uses

There are many more types of basil than the standard sweet green variety. Discover a rainbow of basil varieties, from cinnamon to purple, lemon to African Blue, and use their unique flavors and fragrances to transform your cooking.

Different types of bail in a white pot.

Basil, a versatile and aromatic herb, is a staple in many kitchens around the world. With its roots in the mint family, basil is well-loved for its diverse flavors and uses in different cuisines.

You might be surprised to discover that there are more types of basil than the familiar sweet basil you find at your local grocery store.

In fact, there are between 50 and 150 species of basil, with many being cultivars of sweet basil. While each species has its unique characteristics, a common trait is that both the leaves and the flowers of basil plants are edible.

From the bright green sweet basil often used in pesto to the striking purple varieties, these plants can offer you a whole new world of flavors.

Different Types of Basil

1. Sweet Basil

Sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum), also called common basil, is the most common and well-known variety of basil. It features medium-sized green leaves with smooth edges and a distinctly sweet, aromatic taste.

Close-up of sweet basil leaves.

Sweet basil plants grow upright and can reach up to 2 feet in height. Small white flowers may bloom if the plant is allowed to bolt.

This type of basil has a versatile sweet flavor that is perfect for many culinary uses. It works well in Italian dishes, pesto, salad dressings, sandwiches, and more. Sweet basil also pairs nicely with tomatoes, garlic, and mozzarella.

Sweet basil is easy to find year-round in grocery stores, but home gardeners can also grow it successfully outdoors in full sun during summer months. The plants will produce an abundant harvest when given rich soil, warm weather, and frequent watering.

2. Genovese Basil

One of the most popular varieties of basil found in grocery stores, Genovese basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Genovese’) is also sometimes referred to as Italian basil. It is very similar to sweet basil, and the two are often confused.

This type features large, bright green, slightly shiny leaves that have a sweet, aromatic flavor. The leaves are usually a slightly darker shade of green compared to sweet basil.

Close-up of Genovese basil plant.

Genovese basil plants can grow quite large, up to 24 inches tall and wide. The leaves are on the larger side and have a wrinkled appearance.

This variety is well-suited for making pesto, adding to tomato sauces, and also works nicely fresh in salads or sandwiches. It has a sweet, yet robust flavor, with hints of anise, that stands up well to cooking. Genovese is a versatile type that is widely used in Italian and Mediterranean cuisines.

It is easy to grow from seed and grows well in containers.

3. Lemon Basil

Distinguished by its citrusy scent and flavor, lemon basil (Ocimum basilicum citriodorum) is a zesty herb that adds brightness to dishes. The leaves of lemon basil plants are light green in color and pointed in shape.

Lemon basil sprigs on a wooden board.

When crushed, the leaves give off a strong, delightful lemon aroma. The taste is a balance of basil with a hint of lemon. This flavor profile makes lemon basil a perfect complement to seafood, poultry, salads, and dresses. It is also widely used in Thai and other Asian cuisines.

In cooking, add chopped lemon basil at the end to preserve its flavor. It works fantastically in citrus-based marinades, infused olive oil, and beverages. The herb can also provide a tangy twist when used in pesto.

Lemon basil thrives planted alongside other herbs and pollinator-friendly plants. It needs the same growing conditions as other basil varieties — namely, warm weather, well-draining soil, and frequent moisture. Given proper care, lemon basil will reward you with its unique lemony-basil taste all season long.

4. Thai Basil

With its distinct licorice-anise flavor, Thai basil (O. basilicum var. thyrsiflora) is a popular ingredient in Southeast Asian cuisines, especially Thai dishes. The leaves are a medium green color with pointed, serrated edges.

Thai basil sprigs on a wooden board.

Compared to sweet basil, Thai basil has a stronger flavor with a spicy, peppery kick. It pairs wonderfully with coconut milk, ginger, chili peppers, and lime juice in Thai curries, stir fries, and noodle dishes. The complex flavor also holds up well when cooked.

Thai basil plants have a bushy, compact growth habit and purple stems and flowers. They require warm weather to thrive and grow best planted in full sun. Thai basil will grow quite prolifically all summer long when given adequate water.

5. Cinnamon Basil

True to its name, cinnamon basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Cinnamon’) imparts a spicy, cinnamon-like flavor and aroma. The leaves are a deep green color with a purple tint on the undersides and stems. The flowers are also purple.

A cinnamon basil plant.

When raw, cinnamon basil has an intense, sweet spice fragrance reminiscent of cloves. The cinnamon kick mellows into a more subtle note when cooked. This makes cinnamon basil a versatile addition to both sweet and savory dishes.

Cinnamon basil shines in salads, cocktails, desserts, and dishes featuring fruits. It pairs especially well with stone fruits like peaches. The visual appeal of the purple accents also makes it a beautiful garnish.

For optimum production of leaves and flavor, grow cinnamon basil in rich soil and full sun. The plants grow 2-3 feet tall on upright, reddish purple stems. Cinnamon basil leaves can be harvested all season long once the plant is established. Drying the leaves helps retain the distinct cinnamon taste.

>> Read more: Cinnamon Basil

6. Holy Basil

Holy basil (O. tenuiflorum), also known as tulsi, is an important herb in Hindu culture and Ayurvedic medicine. This aromatic basil variety has a complex, sweet taste with hints of clove, mint, licorice, and lemon.

A holy basil plant.

The leaves of holy basil are green or purple depending on the cultivar. The plants grow as bushes with purple stems and flowers. They are relatively easy to grow in hot, tropical climates with sufficient watering.

Sometimes called “hot basil,” holy basil has a spicy kick that makes it a defining ingredient in many Thai and Indian dishes. It is commonly used in curries but also makes a flavorful tea. Holy basil is believed to have adaptogenic properties that help relieve stress.

For home gardeners seeking an interesting and exotic basil, holy basil is a tropical variety that’s perfect for containers. The attractive bushes produce flavorful leaves all season long. Just a few leaves add unique flavor to any dish.

7. Dark Opal Basil

With its vivid purple foliage, dark opal basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Dark Opal’) makes a stunning addition to any herb garden. The leaves are a deep purple color, while the stems and flowers take on a jewel-like ruby hue.

A dark opal basil plant.

Beyond its ornamental appeal, dark opal basil delivers a robust, yet slightly sweet basil flavor. It has a hint of spice and licorice not found in traditional green sweet basil.

The eye-catching purple color makes dark opal basil a fun ingredient for pestos, herb butters, and pasta dishes. It also pops beautifully as a garnish in cocktails or desserts. The purple tones tend to fade when cooked, turning more green in color.

Dark opal basil thrives in containers or garden beds with full sun exposure. As a slow bolting variety, it will continue producing leaves all season long with proper care. Just one plant provides ample harvest for both visual and culinary use.

8. Greek Basil

Greek basil (Ocimum basilicum var. minimum ‘Greek’) is a compact, bushy herb that lends authentic flavor to Mediterranean dishes. The small leaves pack an intensely robust, sweet aroma reminiscent of anise and cloves.

A Greek basil plant.

Compared to other basils, Greek basil has a more pronounced flavor and pungent scent. Just a few fresh leaves are enough to add a burst of flavor. This makes it a perfect addition to salads, tomato sauces, marinades, roasted vegetables, and more.

Greek basil plants stay short and bushy in form, growing to about 12 inches high. The leaves are quite small, pointed, and deep green. Greek basil thrives planted in containers and raised beds with plenty of drainage.

This variety is slow to bolt and lasts through summer.

9. Lettuce Leaf Basil

Lettuce leaf basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘crispum‘) is prized for its extra large, ruffled leaves that resemble lettuce. The leaves grow up to 4 inches long yet remain tender and smooth in texture.

Close-up of lettuce leaf basil leaves.

Despite its relatively delicate appearance, lettuce leaf basil packs a sweet, nuanced basil flavor. The substantial leaves contain less moisture and turn out less bitter when cooked compared to curly-leaf basils.

Lettuce leaf basil works wonderfully in all kinds of basil recipes. The large leaves make beautiful whole-leaf garnishes for sandwiches, salads, and charcuterie boards. It also adds a mild basil taste to pestos, sauces, pizza, and more without overpowering.

This variety grows over 2 feet tall as an upright, open plant. Lettuce leaf basil thrives in full sun and warm weather. The large leaves are prone to wilt in extreme heat but bounce back once temperatures cool. With its productivity and adaptability, lettuce leaf basil is a great addition to herb and vegetable gardens.

10. African Blue Basil

African Blue Basil (O. kilimandscharicum x O. basilicum ‘Dark Opal’) is a hybrid cultivar known for its robust flavor and unique blue and purple flowers. This perennial plant works well in cooking and can be grown from cuttings.

With its vivid purple flowers and blue-tinted leaves, African blue basil makes a stunning ornamental plant. But it also happens to be delicious. The leaves have a strong, sweet basil aroma tinged with camphor and citrus.

African blue basil plants in a wooden planter.

The unique coloring of African blue basil brightens up pestos, herb butters, and salad dressings. The flavor is robust enough to hold up to cooking without turning bitter. The purple flowers are also edible, adding a pop of color and delicate flavor to dishes.

This beautiful variety thrives planted in containers where its vivid colors can be shown off. The young leaves are purple, and turn green as they mature, only retaining the purple-colored leaf veins.

African blue basil grows as a bushy perennial plant up to 6 feet tall. Give it full sun exposure and prune flowers to keep leaves producing through summer.

For gardeners seeking an ornamental edible, African blue basil offers vibrant beauty and basil flavor in one easy-to-grow plant. A standout choice for containers and garden beds alike.

Frequently Asked Questions

Which basil variety is best for cooking?

Genovese basil is often considered the best variety for cooking due to its bold, slightly sweet flavor. It is highly versatile and can be used in many dishes, including sauces, soups, and salads.

Are there any inedible basil types?

Most basil types are edible, but some varieties, like camphor basil, have strong flavors that might not be suitable for consumption.

How does purple basil differ from the green varieties?

Purple basil has a similar flavor to green basil, but with a hint of mild spiciness. The main difference, however, is the color of its leaves. The vibrant purple hue of this basil variety adds visual interest to any dish and can provide a striking contrast against other ingredients.

What is the best basil for pizza?

The preferred basil for pizza is typically sweet or Genovese basil. Its slightly sweet, aromatic flavor complements the flavor of the tomatoes and other ingredients used in pizza toppings. Fresh basil leaves are usually added after the pizza is cooked, resulting in a delightful burst of fresh flavor.

Can you grow multiple basil varieties together?

Yes, you can grow multiple basil varieties together! Planting different types of basil in the same area can add diversity to your garden and give you a selection of flavors to choose from in your cooking.
However, it is worth checking each variety’s specific growing needs and arranging them accordingly to ensure a healthy and thriving herb garden.