Sweet basil cultivars have been classified into six categories according to their traditional uses.
This category includes a number of robust plants with a flavour that is a pleasant blend of lemon, mint, cinnamon and liquorice flavour. These are the best types of basil for making pesto.
'Ararat' – Leaves with purple markings; typical flavour with an anise overtone
'Aroma' – Classic form; resistant to fusarium wilt
'Compatto' – Compact plant; grows well in pots
'Envigor' – Large, highly scented leaves; resistant to several viruses
'Fino Verde' – Erect plant; smaller leaves than the type; mildly spicy typical aroma
'Genovese' – Classic form; typical Genovese-type basil aroma
'Gecofure' – Fairly compact plant; resistant to fusarium wilt
'Medinette' – Compact plant; smaller leaves than the type; slow to flower
'Nufar' – Classic form; resistant to fusarium wilt
Lettuce-leaf type basil (“Foglia de Lattuga” type)
This group includes mild-tasting, large-leafed basils well suited to sandwiches and salads. The flavour of these basils has a hint of mint, anise and lemon.
'Grand Vert' – Classic large-leafed form
'Lettuce Leaf' – Very large leaves
'Mammouth' – Very large leaves; resistant to fusarium wilt
'Napolitano' – Large, flavourful, puckered leaves
These cultivars are often called Thai basil, and have a characteristic anise scent. Spicy basils are used in Thai and Vietnamese cuisine. These attractive plants make a good addition to flower borders.
'Oriental Breeze' – Compact plant; flavourful; lavender flowers surrounded by mauve bracts
'Queenette' – Olive green leaves with a purplish tinge; reddish stems; purple flowers; anise flavour
'Siam Queen' – Compact plant; purple cone-shaped inflorescence
'Spicy Globe' – Compact plant with small leaves; flavourful; plants grown from seed may not be true to type
This group includes strongly lemon-flavoured basils. They are used in salad dressings for vegetables and seafood. They are also used to flavour beverages and desserts. Many authors consider them to be cultivars of an interspecies hybrid (Ocimum x citriodorum).
'Lesbos' – Erect, compact plant; dark green leaves; bears few flowers
'Mrs. Burns' – Shiny green, highly scented leaves; 50 to 60 cm tall
'Sweet Dani' – Robust and prolific plant; olive green leaves; 75 to 80 cm tall
This category includes dwarf cultivars. These are compact plants with small leaves. They can be grown in containers and as a formal element at the front of borders. They are increasingly considered cultivars of an entirely different species (O. minimum).
'Marseilles' – Compact plant (30 cm); leaves slightly larger than the type
'Picollo' – Spicy mint-flavoured leaves with a hint of anise
'Pistou' – Small plant (20 cm); rounded habit; leaves uniformly sized
'Spicy Bush' – Small plant (20 to 30 cm); rounded habit; spicy flavour
Most of these basils are grown more for their ornamental value than their flavour. Those with coloured leaves are an attractive addition to oils and salads.
'Amethyst Improved' – Dark purple Genovese-type leaves
'Magical Michael' – Compact plant; shiny, olive green leaves; lavender flowers surrounded by burgundy bracts; fruity flavour
'Osmin' – Slightly spicy red leaves fading (turning bronze) during hot spells
'Purple Ruffles' – Robust plant; large, wavy, purple leaves fading (turning bronze) during hot spells
'Cinnamon' – Glossy leaves; mauve flower buds; lavender flowers; delicate fragrance with a hint of cinnamon
Related species and cultivars
Hoary basil, American basil
Ocimum americanum (Synonym: O. canum)
Hoary basil is an erect, bushy plant that grows to 60 cm tall. The stems and leaves are hairy. Spikes of white flowers appear at the stem tips. This plant has a spicy taste, and some chemotypes have a fairly strong camphor scent. It is used to flavour dishes and in traditional medicine.
Least basil, Peruvian basil
Ocimum campechianum (Synonym: O. micranthum)
Peruvian basil, native to Central America, is an annual plant that grows to over 50 cm tall. Its spicy leaves are used to flavour local dishes. It is also used in traditional medicine.
Holy basil, sacred basil, tulsi
Ocimum tenuiflorum (Synonym: O. sanctum)
Holy basil is a plant with downy stems. Its narrow leaves have hairy petioles. They are green to purple, depending on the cultivar. They are highly aromatic, with a stronger camphor, musky scent than Genovese basils. The small pink flowers surrounded by purple bracts are borne in terminal spikes. This basil is well known in India, where it is used in recipes and traditional medicine.
Blue Spice basil
Ocimum americanum x O. basilicum
This interspecies hybrid has dark green leaves with a metallic sheen. It is used like Genovese style basil for its mild aroma with a hint of anise. The light purple flowers appear late in the season.
Red Rubin basil
Ocimum basilicum x O. forskolei 'Red Rubin'
This interspecies hybrid has attractive cinnamon-flavoured red leaves that retain their colour during hot spells. Compact plant growing 45 cm tall.