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]
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]
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.
African Basil - [Wild Basil,
Ocimum canum, also Ocimum kilimandscharicum]
African Blue Basil -
[Ocimum kilimandscharicum x Ocimum basilicum]
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]
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
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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.