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Basil varieties & types at a glance

31.05.2021  /  Reading time: 8 minutes

Basil offers a wide range of varieties with lots to discover. In addition to classic varieties such as 'Genovese', there are also exotic basil varieties such as'cinnamon or lemon basil'. Here we give you an overview of 7 popular basil types and varieties.

This article contains:

  1. Basil: varieties & species at a glance
  2. What types of basil are there?
  3. Genovese basil (Ocimum basilicum "Genovese")
  4. African shrub basil (Ocimum x africanum)
  5. Lemon basil (Ocimum citriodorum)
  6. Greek basil (Ocimum basilicum var. minimum)
  7. Red basil
  8. Thai basil
  9. Mexican cinnamon basil (Ocimum basilicum 'Mexican')
  10. Are there hardy basil varieties?
  11. Frequently asked questions about basil varieties and types

Quick Overview

Various basil varieties & species

  • Genovese basil: intensely spicy flavor, tall-growing variety, not hardy, annual
  • African bush basil: vanilla and camphor aroma, tall-growing, not hardy, perennial
  • Lemon basil: lemon aroma, short-growing and bushy, not hardy, annual
  • Greek basil: delicate aroma, bushy and dense growth, not hardy, perennial
  • Thai basil: sweet taste of aniseed, not hardy
  • Mexican cinnamon basil: cinnamon flavor, medium growth, annual

Hardy basil varieties?

  • No basil variety is hardy and can cope with frost. Therefore, even perennial varieties must be brought indoors for the winter.

Basil: varieties & species at a glance

To give you an overview of the different basil species and varieties, let's start with a botanical classification. All basil varieties are part of the Lamiaceae family and belong to the genus 'basil' (Ocimum). Within this genus, there are around 60 basil species and even more basil varieties. There are many different varieties of the "herb of kings". The best known is the green, large-leaved "Genovese" variety, but there are also red or small-leaved varieties. Those who like special fragrances can choose lemon or cinnamon basil. These varieties, as well as the Indian Tulsi basil or Thai basil, can be dried and used in your own tea creations or as a spice.

What types of basil are there?

Genovese basil is definitely one of the best-known basil varieties. Its large leaves are particularly popular for pesto. Thai basil is an important ingredient in Southeast Asian cuisine and a valued medicinal plant. It has a special aroma reminiscent of aniseed. Lemon basil complements fish dishes or fresh salads particularly well with its fresh and lemony aroma. Another very aromatic variety is the small-leaved bush basil, which is ideal for growing in pots. We will introduce you to these and other varieties in more detail below.

Genovese basil (Ocimum basilicum "Genovese")

The common basil (Ocimum basilicum) is probably the most commonly used species in our latitudes. When we talk about basil, we usually mean this species. Many other varieties are subspecies of this species and are often the result of cross-breeding with it and other basil species. A particularly popular variety of this type of basil is'Genovese', which is especially popular for pesto, as it contains a lot of essential oils in its leaves.

This basil variety is characterized by its intensely spicy taste. It can be easily recognized by its bright green, relatively large and egg-shaped leaves. Under good conditions, Genovese basil grows up to 50 cm tall, making it a rather tall-growing variety. This variety is not hardy and only grows as an annual anyway, so it needs to be re-sown every year.

Genovese basil
You can recognize the Genovese variety by its large, egg-shaped leaves.

African shrub basil (Ocimum x africanum)

The shrub-like plant with dark green leaves and purple veins is not only pleasing to the eye, but also has a great aroma that can be classified somewhere between vanilla and camphor. This type of basil originally comes from Africa and grows perennially in its native country. However, the plants must be kept frost-free over winter as they are not hardy.

An example of a basil variety of this type is 'African Blue' (Ocimum kilimandscharicum x basilicum). These varieties usually grow relatively tall and can reach a height of up to 80 cm.

Bush basil
African shrub basil is easily recognizable by its purple veins. Image by congerdesign on Pixabay

Lemon basil (Ocimum citriodorum)

Here, too, the name says it all. The lemony basil flavor is ideal for fish dishes, ice cream or cold drinks. It is also great in tea blends! The annual species has light purple flowers and bushy, green leaves. This type of basil tends to grow small and bushy. It usually only grows between 20 and 30 cm tall.

There are varieties that originate from wild Italian varieties and are related to mountain mint. On the other hand, there are also varieties that originate from African basil species. These varieties are very robust and are characterized by hairy leaves. Some lemon basil varieties are also derived from American varieties (Ocimum americanum), such as 'Sweet Lemon' or 'Lemonette'.

Lemon basil
There are different types of lemon basil, which can look different depending on their origin and cultivation.

Greek basil (Ocimum basilicum var. minimum)

This particularly small-leaved variety is very similar in taste to Genovese basil. However, the aroma is more delicate due to the smaller leaves. This variety grows quite bushy and dense. As a result, these basil varieties only reach heights of between 15 and 30 cm, but are generally more resistant and easier to care for than large-leaved varieties. However, these varieties are also not hardy and must be brought indoors for the winter.

Small-leaved bush basil
Small-leaved basil varieties are more robust than large-leaved ones. Image from PublicDomainPictures on Pixabay

Red basil

The dark purple color of the plant is mainly due to the anthocyanins formed. Anthocyanins generally serve to protect plants from too much sunlight. This is why the leaves turn a more intense red if you cultivate the herb in a sunny spot. This already reveals that most red-leaved varieties tend to originate from very warm, sunny areas. They are perennial in their native habitat, but in our latitudes they need to overwinter in a warm place. There are no hardy red-leaved basil varieties. In terms of cultivation and care, red varieties do not differ from green-leaved varieties.

Red basil varieties can be found in a wide variety of species and is more of a collective term that describes the leaf coloration. There are numerous red basil varieties such as 'Dark opal' or 'Purple delight'.

Red basil
Red basil varieties are characterized by their bright red or purple leaves. Image by JamesDeMers on Pixabay

Thai basil

Thai basil is not a defined plant species, but refers to a spice. This spice can contain different varieties. These basil varieties originate from Asia and the spice contains either Thai basil (Ocimum basilicum var. thyrsiflora), also known as sweet basil, or Indian basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum), also known as Tulsi basil. These species are characterized by their slightly sweet taste, which is somewhat reminiscent of liquorice or aniseed.

In India, this type of basil is a highly valued medicinal plant. In other parts of Asia, this basil is often used to refine dishes. In Thailand and Vietnam in particular, it is impossible to imagine the kitchen without this herb. The leaves are green, while the stems and flowers are purple.

Tulsi or Thai basil
Tulsi is a popular and highly valued medicinal plant in India. Image by Maite Ramos Ortiz on Pixabay

Mexican cinnamon basil (Ocimum basilicum 'Mexican')

As the name suggests, this type of basil smells and tastes mildly of cinnamon. The flowers and leaves are therefore ideal for desserts or dried in teas. The leaves of the annual plant are green, the stems purple and the flowers red. This herb grows to a height of between 30 and 60 cm. Originally, cinnamon basil comes from Mexico and therefore does not tolerate cold or frost.

Are there hardy basil varieties?

Basil cannot cope with cold temperatures. The herb cannot survive below 7 degrees and dies. This applies to all basil varieties, so basil is never hardy. So if you have planted a perennial variety, you will need to bring the plants inside to overwinter. Alternatively, you can choose an annual variety and sow new seeds every year.

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Cover picture by EmilyStimac on Pixabay.

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Marie studied agricultural science at the University of Hohenheim. Her main focus is on ecological agriculture and permaculture. She writes articles for Fryd to educate people about ecological interrelationships and alternatives to current land use. Our current economic systems, especially in agriculture, have numerous negative effects on nature and destabilize our ecosystems. We need a great diversity in our gardens and beds again to counteract the extinction of species. Every gardener can contribute to creating and maintaining habitats and food for a wide variety of creatures. With her articles, she would like to pass on her experience in dealing with natural systems and give people the opportunity to contribute to a stable ecosystem and thus also to securing our livelihood.

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Genovese basil is particularly popular for making pesto as it is rich in essential oils, which gives it an intensely spicy flavor.

No, African shrub basil is not hardy and must overwinter frost-free as it comes from warmer climates.

Lemon basil has a distinct lemony aroma that makes it ideal for use in teas, fish dishes and other refreshing dishes.

No, no basil variety is hardy. Even perennial varieties must be kept frost-free to survive the winter.

These two types of basil differ in their taste and appearance. Classic basil is spicy-sweet, while Thai basil tastes almost spicy with an aniseed/licorice aroma.

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