Basil: we cook with it and heal with it, we love its spicy, fresh scent. But most of the time, when we think of basil, we think of the Italian kind. This is just one of basil’s many faces: there are so many basil varieties to choose from!
All of them are a little different, and each one of them contributes something unique to our herbal landscape.
You’ve probably heard of lemon basil, lime basil, Thai basil, cinnamon basil, and even holy basil. But where do these specialty herbs fit in? How do you use them, and why would you bother planting them when Italian basil is just so good? Read on to discover more about this amazing plant, and how to use the many types available.
Variety is the Spice of Life
Maybe you’re been growing a bed of sweet basil for years and you want to expand a bit. Or maybe someone recommended you try holy basil for anxiety. Whatever you’re reason for looking into the lesser known basils, that first step can be intimidating.
There are just so many options to choose from! How do you know which basil to choose, and why are they all so different?
The Wide World of Basil Varieties
There are over 30 different basil varieties, and each one has a different interior make up. As far as culinary purposes go, each basil is going to taste a bit different. Medicinally, this means that each basil is going to act on the body in different ways.
Lemon basil, for example, has an intense lemon scent. Its sweeter taste and deep fragrance make it popular in Indonesian cuisine. In contrast, cinnamon basil has high levels of cinnamate: the same chemical that gives cinnamon its trademark flavor.
This type of basil is popular in Mexican foods, and because of the cinnamate presence, can be helpful in cough syrups. A cinnamon basil fermented honey makes a powerful cough medicine, especially when mixed with a little lemon juice.
The best way to sort through this huge assortment of basils is by getting to know a few of them at a time. To get started, take a look at some of the most highly recommended varieties. Once you’ve done so, see if their culinary or medicinal values fit your garden goals. Let’s get started!
1. Sweet Basil (Italian)
There are quite a few cultivars to be found amongst Italian basil varieties. Some are very sweet, others very spicy, but they all share some essential properties. Basically, sweet basils are the most popular kitchen herbs in the US. We make them into pesto, pile them on caprese salads, and muddle them in summery cocktails.
Sweet basils are deliciously spicy. In fact, just walking in your basil bed is enough to sharpen your focus and energize your mind. But they have other benefits as well. For example sweet basil is a gentle, natural antibiotic. If your body struggles to accept prescribed antibiotics, like mine does, give basil a try.
Infuse a jam jar of raw honey with garlic and basil. You can take a few spoonfuls at the first sign of infection or spread a bit on a cut as a DIY antibiotic.
This type of basil is also great for increasing blood flow. When it’s cold outside and your fingers and toes just can’t get warm, tossing some Italian basil leaves in a warm bath will help encourage your body to send more blood to those chilly extremities. Making a salve with this plant is another great way to improve circulation.
2. Thai Basil
If you like Thai food, planting this basil is essential. It can be difficult to find, but Thai basil is another culinary great! It tastes a bit like licorice, is more stable under high heat than sweet basil, and frequently shows up in curries and noodle dishes.
Thai basil also makes a delicious pesto with garlic, a hint of sesame oil, and cashews. If you’re feeling adventurous, add a tiny amount of Thai chili peppers to make a spicy Asian pesto.
This type of basil has a lot of medicinal similarities to Italian basil varieties, as they both belong to the species Ocimum basilicum. Thai basil is most often used in Ayurvedic medicine as an anti-inflammatory herb. It’s used for treating arthritis and rheumatism, as well as acne and allergic rashes.
3. Lemon and Lime Basils
Lemon basil is good for more than just Indonesian meals. Both lemon and lime basils are citrus-heavy, sweet-flavored basils that pair well with fish and chicken dishes. But one of my favorite things to make with these beautiful basils is infused water.
This type of infused water is so popular right now. It’s a delicious alternative to cocktails and a great way to enjoy the healing properties of plants! Lemon and lime basils are full of citrusy goodness, and also have the highest levels of antimicrobial activity, which means that they can kill or inhibit disease-causing microbes.
To make your own antioxidant-rich antimicrobial water, crush a small handful of lemon or lime basil, slice up half a cucumber, and squeeze half a lemon (or lime) into a half-gallon jar of filtered tap water. Let it sit for at least a half hour and then drink it all throughout the day. Lemon and lime basils also pair well with blackberries, blueberries, and nasturtiums.
Both these blends are detoxifying as well. Add them to your morning ritual to cleanse toxins and support a healthy immune system.
4. Holy Basil (Tulsi)
Holy basil is part of the basil genus, but not part of the basilicum species. Tulsi, or Ocimum tenuiflorum, is a perennial whose uses are almost exclusively medicinal. It’s traditionally used in Thai food, but is often replaced by Thai basil in American-made Thai dishes.
Holy basil is an essential part of Ayurvedic medicine. Primarily, this basil variety is an adaptogen, which means it balances the adrenals and helps the body adapt to various stressors. Adaptogens are versatile herbs that improve your body’s ability to recognize and repair imbalances.
Tulsi is a fantastic herb for lowering blood pressure and blood sugar, but use it with caution. Holy basil has a stronger effect on the body than Ocimum basilicum. It can cause uterine contractions and reduced milk supply, so avoid it while pregnant or breastfeeding.
5. Clove Basil
If you’ve never heard of this intensely scented basil plant, it’s definitely one to check out. Clove (or African) basil is spicier than your average Ocimum. Its scent has a whisper of camphor, a bit similar to cloves, and is full of warmth. This variety is rarely used in the kitchen.
Instead, clove basil can be sewn into sachets and tucked with woolens to deter moths. It also makes a tummy-soothing tea—great after heavy meals or too many sweets. Use a tea made with clove basil to calm colds and cool fevers, or gargle it to calm toothaches. Clove basil will help keep your garden pest-free too, since insects of all kinds loathe its strong scent.
Share and Share Alike
Each variety of basil has its specialty. With varying essential oil compounds, and diverse chemical make-ups, each basil is unique. But they’re all members of the Ocimum genus—a big family of basil varieties! As a result, they share a lot of the same healing properties.
If you can’t find tulsi, or you’re worried about using it for whatever reason, the other basils provide a gentler adaptogenic effect.
Sweet basil and lemon water is also detoxifying, though you’ll get a more powerful detox from lemon basil.
All the basils are equally healing to sore gums and sensitive teeth. Mix powdered basil—any variety—with a bit of baking soda, coconut oil, and pink Himalayan salt for a remineralizing tooth paste.
Just note that basils are not as interchangeable in the kitchen. Each one has a distinct flavor, and while cinnamon basil and Thai basil can be substituted for each other, the difference in flavor is noticeable. If you’re replacing one basil with another, go slowly. Think about the flavor profile you’re looking to build in your recipe and don’t pick a basil you’d have to fight against.
More Basil Varieties to Love
Some plants are quite promiscuous, and basil is one of them. When you plant a few different basils close together, they’ll end up mingling of properties. Basils share their aspects freely, which is one reason there is such a huge variety.
If you want to keep your varieties a bit distinct, divide them up. I like to keep a few varieties in pots on the porch, a couple more among the roses. Then I plant a big bed of one variety on the far side of the garden. This layout limits mingling.
That said, if you don’t mind a bit of blending, there’s nothing wrong with growing all your basil plants together. They make a beautiful bed of bright leaves and small, many hued flowers.
I’ve mentioned just a few, common basils here. There are so many others that the sheer amount of basil varieties can feel overwhelming at times. After all, they could fill up an entire garden! Regardless of which ones you choose, however, you’re certain to enjoy their delicious flavor and health-boosting aspects for years to come.