There are various types of Basil, each with its own unique characteristics and uses. As a result, these two fragrant herbs often get confused. While they share some similarities, they are distinct species with significant differences for your health. Let's learn more about these two species of Basil and how you can benefit from incorporating them into your daily routine.
Botanical Classification: Two Cousins in the Lamiaceae Family
Both Basil and Holy Basil belong to the Lamiaceae family, a group of aromatic plants known for their square stems, opposite leaves, and two-lipped flowers. However, within this family, they belong to different species:
- Basil (Ocimum Basilicum): This species encompasses the familiar culinary herb - sweet Basil, named for its sweet flavor - and other varieties as well.
- Holy Basil (Ocimum Tenuiflorum): Also known as Tulsi, this revered herb has a more intense flavor and is revered for its therapeutic properties in traditional Ayurvedic medicine.
Varieties of Basil
Most Americans are familiar with the common species of Basil, having enjoyed them in their favorite Italian dishes or Asian cuisine. Popular culinary varieties include Sweet Basil, Cinnamon Basil, and Thai Basil. However, they may be unfamiliar with Holy Basil and how it can benefit their health. Ready to learn more?
Sweet Basil, also known as Ocimum Basilicum, is an aromatic herb widely used in Mediterranean dishes and Italian cooking. It is a type of Basil characterized by its strong licorice (or anise-like) flavor, which adds a sweet and slightly peppery taste to savory dishes. The light green, silky leaves of Sweet Basil are commonly a key ingredient in pesto, salads, and pasta sauces.
In addition to its culinary uses, Sweet Basil also has antioxidant and antimicrobial properties, making it a popular ingredient in herbal remedies as well.
In the kitchen, it is used to flavor soups, stews, and meat dishes and infuse oils and vinegars. In herbal remedies, it is used to aid digestion, soothe headaches, and alleviate stress. The leaves are steeped in hot water to make a soothing tea or used in aromatherapy to promote relaxation and mental clarity.
Sweet Basil is a versatile Italian herb that adds flavor and health benefits to a wide range of dishes and remedies.
Cinnamon Basil, also known as Mexican Spicy Basil, is widely used in Thai and Vietnamese cuisines for its peppery, slightly spicy, and clove-like flavor. It has bright green leaves with subtle purple veining, purple stems, and light purple or pink flowers.
Its spicy and aromatic taste makes it the Basil of choice for Thai Basil stir-fry, Vietnamese pho, and green curry dishes because it adds depth and complexity to traditional Southeast Asian dishes.
Overall, Cinnamon Basil is a versatile herb with a strong flavor that adds a unique kick to various dishes in Southeast Asian cuisines.
Thai Basil comes in four main varieties, each with its own unique characteristics. Thai Siam Queen Basil is one of the most popular varieties because it stands up well to cooking and has more licorice and clove flavor. Queenette Thai Basil is an authentic Thai Basil grown predominantly in Thailand with a complex flavor profile similar to cloves, mint, and Sweet Basil. Thai Magic Basil has a mild, sweet flavor with a hint of anise. And, as the name suggests, Thai Lemon Basil has a citrusy flavor that adds a fragrant aroma and refreshing zing to dishes.
In Southeast Asian cuisine, Thai Basil is commonly used in both Thai and Vietnamese dishes. It is often added to curries, stir-fries, and soups to impart a fresh, aromatic flavor. Its slightly spicy and peppery notes add depth to dishes, while the citrusy undertones of Thai Lemon Basil add a refreshing twist.
In Thai cuisine, Thai Basil is a key ingredient in dishes such as Pad Krapow (spicy Basil stir-fry) and Green Curry. It is often used in Pho and various noodle dishes in Vietnamese cuisine.
Also known as Ocimum tenuiflorum, Holy Basil is an herb known predominantly for its medicinal benefits. Its adaptogenic properties help the body adapt to stress and promote overall balance. It has an intense, peppery flavor with hints of licorice and mint. It has smaller leaves with purple veins and a slightly fuzzy texture, making it easily distinguishable from other Basil varieties.
In terms of culinary applications, Holy Basil is commonly used in Asian cuisines, particularly in Thai and Indian dishes. It can be added to soups, stir-fries, curries, and salads to impart its unique flavor.
Additionally, Holy Basil has a wide range of therapeutic applications. It has been used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine to help with inflammation, stress, anxiety, and immune support. Whether used for cooking or for medicinal benefits, Holy Basil offers a versatile and flavorful addition to various dishes and is a key component in holistic health practices.
Differences Between Basil and Holy Basil
Let's take a closer look at the differences between the Basilicum species (Basil) and Tenuiflorum species (Holy Basil) of Basil to better understand their unique characteristics and how they can benefit your health.
Appearance: Subtle Distinctions in Leaf and Flower
While both herbs boast green leaves and white flowers, closer inspection reveals their individual nuances:
- Holy Basil: The Holy Basil plant has smaller, ovate-shaped leaves with serrated edges, purple veins, and a slightly fuzzy texture.
- Basil: The Sweet Basil plant has larger, broader leaves with smooth edges, ranging in color from light green to deep purple, depending on the variety.
- Holy Basil: White flowers clustered in small whorls around the stems.
- Basil: Purple, pink, or white flowers, depending on the variety, often arranged in spikes or racemes.
Flavor Profile: A Journey from Sweet to Spicy
The taste is where the true distinction between the two herbs lies:
- Holy Basil: Offers a more intense, peppery flavor with hints of licorice and mint. Some describe it as having a slightly camphor-like aroma.
- Basil: Displays a range of sweet and savory profiles depending on the variety. Sweet Basil offers a classic anise-like flavor with a hint of pepper, while other varieties, like Thai Basil, showcase a more pronounced peppery note.
Culinary Applications: Exploring Distinctive Flavors
While both herbs are culinary treasures, their uses differ slightly:
- Holy Basil: A popular ingredient in Southeast Asian cuisine, particularly in Thai and Vietnamese dishes. The strong, distinctive flavor of this fresh herb is often incorporated into curries, soups, and stir-fries. Additionally, it holds a significant role in traditional Indian medicine and is consumed in teas and infusions.
- Basil: A popular ingredient in Italian and Mediterranean cuisine, starring in iconic dishes like pesto, Caprese salad, and pasta sauces. Its sweet and savory notes lend themselves well to a variety of applications, from salads and pizzas to desserts and cocktails.
Growing Requirements: Adapting to Different Environments
Although both herbs enjoy warm and sunny conditions, their tolerance for heat and drought varies:
- Holy Basil: Adapts better to hot and dry climates, thriving with minimal water. It can be grown as a perennial in warmer regions.
- Basil: Requires more consistent watering and is less tolerant of extreme heat and drought. It typically grows as an annual plant in most climates.
Beyond Culinary Uses: Health Benefits and Cultural Significance
The health benefits of both herbs are well-documented, though they differ significantly.
- Holy Basil: Holy Basil is well-recognized for its medicinal properties. It's used in Ayurvedic medicine to support things like anxiety, adrenal fatigue, and hypothyroidism. Recent studies have suggested that it may have adaptogenic properties, promoting stress relief, anxiety reduction, and immune system support. Therapeutic benefits are achieved from Holy Basil oil, or tea and tinctures made from the dried leaves of Holy Basil plants.
- Basil: Common Basil, while not as prominent in traditional medicine, is rich in vitamins and antioxidants. It’s been associated with reduced oxidative stress and anti-inflammatory benefits. Its fresh leaves are often used to add flavor and nutritional value to salads, soups, and sauces. Common Basil contributes to improved digestion and overall health.
Holy Basil transcends its culinary and medicinal uses, holding a sacred place in Hindu culture. It is considered an embodiment of the goddess Tulsi, worshipped for its purity and healing powers.
Conclusion: Two Distinct Herbs, One Flavorful Family
Despite their differences, Holy Basil (Ocimum Tenuiflorum) and common Basil (Ocimum Basilicum) share a close relationship within the Lamiaceae family. Both offer unique flavors and culinary applications, enriching dishes and traditional medicine practices around the world. Understanding their individual characteristics allows you to appreciate their diverse uses and choose the perfect herb for your next culinary adventure or wellness routine.