Growing Plant Basils
Basils (genus Ocimum of family Lamiaceae alt Labiatae (the mint family) of order Lamiales are a worldwide family consisting almost entirely of small herbs. Even the one exception reaches only 10 feet. Many of these herbs have important culinary uses. Most basils are annuals, but African basils are perenials.

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General & History

Basils are a major sub-tribe of the mints, probably originating in Africa but first cultivated in India. Varieties of these aromatic plants are now grown worldwide, particularly in Southeast Asia, Mediterranean countries and California.

Classifying basils is difficult even for botanists because they are highly promiscuous and cross breed with abandon, even from one species to another. Many species have a half dozen or more "scientific" names and cultivars of the same species may vary in shape and color.

Varieties

Italian Basil   -   [Sweet Basil, Genovese Basil, Mediterranean Basil; Ocimum basilicum] Growing plant

This Basil is universally called for in European and American recipes. It is more aromatic and less sharp than Thai Purple Basil, but the two are reasonably interchangeable. I have been known to make Italian pesto using Thai basil because I can get it at a fraction of the price for Italian. Details and Cooking.

Purple Basil   -   [Opal Basil; Ocimum basilicum] Growing plants

Purple basil ranges from purple splotches on green leaves to deep dark purple with almost no green. It is fairly closely related to Italian basil but not as usable for many recipes because of its color. It is, however, very good in salads and for applications where color is not critical. It should not be confused with Thai Purple Basil (see below) which is mostly green with purple stems and has a somewhat different flavor. Opal (deep purple) basil is the preferred basil for Georgian cuisine.

Growing:   Purple basil is more resistant to fusarium wilt than Italian basil but may be somewhat stunted by it.

Thai Basils
These basils have become quite important in some parts of North America, particularly Southern California, where there are large Thai and Vietnamese communities, as well as a general enthusiasm for Thai cuisine.


Thai Purple Basil   -   [Bai Horapha (Thai); Hung Que (Viet); Pak Boualapha, Pak Boula Phe (Laos); Anise Basil; Ocimum basilicum var thyrsiflora]
Leafy sprigs

Now quite common in Southern California, this basil has good flavor and reasonable keeping properties (almost a week if very fresh and treated carefully). In general the leaves are dark green with only a hint of purple, and the stems are distinctly purple but there are also all-green varieties. Of the Asian basils, this one is closest to Italian Basil but is sharper, slightly sweeter, and with a more anise-like flavor. They can substitute for each other in a pinch. I've even used Thai Purple Basil to make Italian Pesto because I can get piles of it cheap at ethnic markets, while Italian Basil can cost several dollars an ounce in the supermarkets. Details and Cooking.

Thai Lemon Basil / Lao Basil   -   [Bai Maeng-lak (Thai); Pak i tou (Laos); Sangig (Philippines); Kemangi (Indonesia); Ocimum x africanum alt Ocimum x citriodorum]
Leafy sprigs

This is one of the basils that has become common in Southern California, often labeled "Thai Basil". It is characterized by a citrus fragrance, smaller light green pointed leaves and a relatively light flavor - and bad keeping properties (maybe 3 days if you take good care of it). It often alternates with Thai Purple Basil in the markets. The stronger more aromatic flavor of the purple is better for most Thai cooking while the Lemon Basil is used mainly for salads and some soups. Details and Cooking.

Holy Basil   -   [Tulsi (india); Krapao (Thai); Pak Kapow, Bai Supow, Pak i tou Tai (Laos); Humong Basil (Calif.); Hot Basil Ocimum sanctum (Mint family)]
Leafy sprigs

In India this basil is highly revered and used for religious purposes and in Ayurvedic medicine. In Thailand and Vietnam it is used as a culinary herb. Unlike other basils it is always cooked, not used raw or just warmed. There are two basic varieties, one with purplish green leaves and purple stems (called purple), the other is all green (called white). Unlike other basils the leaf margins are strongly serrated, the leaves are slightly fuzzy and the stems are definitely fuzzy. It has very poor keeping qualities, if it's really fresh when you buy it you may get 2 days. Holy Basil has a strong flavor that is sharper and more minty than other basils, and with a hint of camphor. Details and Cooking.

Basil Seeds   -   [takmaria, tukmaria sabja, subja, falooda (India); Ocimum basilicum]
Seeds

Basil seeds have a coating on them that becomes gelatinous when soaked overnight in water. This feature is exploited in a number of drinks throughout South and Southeast Asia, particularly India and Thailand. The seeds provide texture and do not have much of a basil flavor. Basil seeds are also used in traditional and Ayurvedic medicine. As the photo specimens show, these seeds are very small, less than 1 mm long.


African Basil - [Wild Basil, Ocimum canum, also Ocimum kilimandscharicum]
A perennial basil grown in Africa and recently brought to Europe but not yet popular in North America. It's flavor is strong but less pleasant than that of Thai Purple Basil. In Europe it is being used to produce interesting hybrids with Mediterranean basil. From the ads on the Internet I gather O. canum has widespread medicinal and magical uses.

African Blue Basil   -   [Ocimum kilimandscharicum x Ocimum basilicum]
Flowering Plant

This is a pernneial hybrid between an African and a European basil and is now widely sold by herb vendors here in Southern California. It flowers profusely, but is sterile so no seeds are produced. For greater production of leaves, flower heads should be cut off regularly. This basil has found use more as a decorative than as a culinary herb because it's not a good replacement for Italian basil, Thai basil or Holy basil due to its high camphor content. This makes the flavor significantly different. It may be good as an herb used with beef, lamb or goat dishes - I haven't tried that yet.

Tree Basil   -   [African Basil, Clove basil Wild Basil (Hawaii); Horapha-chang (Thai); East Indian Basil (Filipino); Ocimum gratissimum]
Growing Plants

This tropical basil grows wild in parts of Africa and Southeast Asia and Hawaii. The leaves have a very intense flavor of cloves, so intense just a couple of leaves in the pot is sufficient. It is said to be particularly good for use with meats cooked in red wine. This basil is a perennial and far larger than other basils, growing as high as 10 feet. Photo by Forest & Kim Starr distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 - attribution required, notification desired at starrimages@hear.org.

Health & Nutrition

Recent research has shown that the essential oils contained in basil have strong antioxidant, anti-cancer, antiviral and anti-microbial properties. Some experiments have shown a potential for decreasing blood platelet aggregation.

Tulsi (Holy Basil) is very much used in India as a medicinal to treat everything from common colds to heart disease. Recent research has shown it to be useful in treatement of type 2 diabetes and to reduce blood cholesterol levels. High in antioxidants, it is thought to have potential for treatment of radiation sickness and to reduce formation of cataracts.

Basil contains the known carcinogen estragole, but researchers estimate it would take between 100 and 1000 times the normal culinary usage to produce a statistically measurable increase in cancer risk.

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©Andrew Grygus - agryg@clovegaden.com - Photos on this page not otherwise credited are © cg1 - Linking to and non-commercial use of this page permitted