Basil is a popular and versatile herb that is used in cuisines around the world. Whether you’re making pesto, adding fresh herbs to a salad, or seasoning a pasta dish, basil is a go-to herb for many home cooks. In this article, we’ll explore some of the most popular varieties of basil that you can grow in your home garden, including their unique flavors, growing habits, and culinary uses. Whether you’re a seasoned gardener or just starting out, there’s a basil variety out there that’s perfect for you.
So, how many varieties of basil do you really need, one might ask? The answer, of course, is just one or two, if you’re a cook who loves tomato, basil, and mozzarella (or burrata!) salads and homemade pesto.
But for the home gardener, it’s a lost opportunity to beautify your space if you don’t grow some of the lovely varieties that thrive in the home garden.
I didn’t start out as an avid herb gardener — my heart belonged to tomatoes — but over the years, I’ve grown very attached to my herb gardens. They’re attractive and low maintenance. They produce an abundance of raw material that I use in cooking (and is otherwise very expensive at the grocery store — I see you, $2 clamshells of wilted herbs).
And almost all of them produce flowers that pollinators absolutely adore, particularly the fuzzy bees: honeybees and bumblebees. I grow entire basil beds just for the flowers. I get to enjoy their leaves early on, but then let the plants bloom to bring all the bees to the yard.
It’s a win for humans and bees alike!
Where can basil grow in the U.S.?
Basil is typically grown as an annual plant in the U.S.A. because it’s sensitive to frost. So, it’s best grown in areas with warm temperatures and a moderately long growing season (say, temps above 55ºF between May and October).
Basil can generally be grown in hardiness zones 4-11. The key is to time its planting after the spring’s last frost, and harvest before the first frost of fall.
In colder climates with shorter growing seasons, basil can be grown indoors or in a greenhouse to extend the growing season. It is also quite easy to start basil seeds indoors several weeks before the last frost date and then transplant it outside once the weather warms up, to give yourself a little headstart in the spring.
In warmer climates, basil grows happily year-round and usually self-seeds to spread as a perennial in some areas.
10 Basil Varieties to Try in the Backyard Garden
I’ve lost track of how many different varieties of basil I’ve tried in my 30+ years of gardening. Depending on the botanist you ask, there are up to 150 different varieties of basil, the majority of them culinary.
I can’t say I’ve regretted growing any of them, but there is a handful that I rely on year after year, either because of their flavors or leaf colors — the pop of purple in a green salad is :chef’s kiss: — or because of how beautiful a mass planting can be in the home garden.
And I always grow some sweet basil or Genovese basil in a pot that stays on the deck rail near my kitchen door for easy dinner prep plucking.
So without further adieu, here are my favorite basil varieties that I grow.
Sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) is commonly used in various cuisines around the world. It has a distinctive sweet and slightly sharp and peppery flavor that is particularly prized for fresh eating, such as in salads and pestos. The aroma of sweet basil is also quite strong and has a pleasant and fresh scent.
The leaves of sweet basil are a bright green color and have a smooth, slightly glossy surface. The shape of the leaves is oval and they grow to be about 2-3 inches long. The plant itself can grow up to two feet tall. and has small, white flowers on green stalks that begin blooming mid-season.
Sweet basil is commonly used in Italian cuisine to flavor dishes such as pizza, pasta, and tomato sauce. It’s also used in many other types of cuisine, including Thai, Vietnamese, and Mediterranean.
Sweet basil, or one of its hybrid cultivars, is most often what’s sold as dried basil in the spice aisle at the grocery.
Sweet basil should be readily available as a starter plant at garden centers in the spring. If you only have room for one basil, Sweet basil should be the choice.
Genovese basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Genovese’) is a variety of sweet basil that is popularly used in Italian cuisine and is the gold standard for pesto. It’s known for its large domed leaves, strong aroma, and robust basil flavor.
The leaves of Genovese basil are a bright green color and are larger than those of other basil varieties. They are typically 2-3 inches long and 1-2 inches wide, with a slightly pointed tip. The leaves have a wrinkled surface and are slightly thicker than other basil varieties.
Like Sweet basil, the flavor of Genovese basil is also sweet and with notes of black pepper and anise. It has a strong, pleasant scent with classic basil undertones.
Genovese basil is commonly used in Italian cuisine, particularly in pesto sauce, Caprese salads, and tomato-based sauces. It can also be used in a variety of other dishes, including soups, stews, and grilled meats.
Genovese basil is a flavorful and versatile herb that is easy to grow in a home garden and makes an impressive presence in a mass planting.
Red Rubin Basil
Red Rubin basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Purpurascens’) is a variety that is known for its dark purple-red-green leaves and unique spicy, clove-like flavor.
The leaves of Red Rubin basil are interesting and variable. Red Rubin is actually a direct offshoot of Dark Opal Basil (below), and like its parent is classified as a purple basil. Notice in the photo, however, that its leaves have gradients of both purple and green. This is completely normal and, in my opinion, creates a beautifully colored plant.
The plant grows to be about 1-2 feet tall and has a bushy, compact growth habit with purple stems. The flowers are small and pink or purple on purple stems.
The flavor of Red Rubin basil is distinct from other basil varieties, with a spicy, clove-like taste and aroma. It also has a slightly bitter aftertaste. Because of its strong flavor, Red Rubin basil is often used in small quantities to add a pop of flavor to salads, soups, and sauces.
Red Rubin basil can be used in a variety of cuisines, particularly in dishes that call for a more robust flavor. It pairs well with other strong flavors such as garlic, onion, and tomato. It is often used in Italian, Thai, and Vietnamese dishes.
Dark Opal Basil
Dark Opal basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Dark Opal’) is a purple basil that is known for its deep purple leaves and excellent flavor.They have a distinctive spicy, anise-like flavor with a hint of sweetness. The plant grows to be about 1-2 feet tall and has a bushy growth habit.
Dark Opal basil can be used in a variety of cuisines, particularly in dishes that call for a more unique appearance. It pairs well with other strong flavors such as garlic, onion, and tomato. It is often used in salads, as a garnish, and as an edible decoration.
Dark Opal basil is a visually striking plant that’s a beautiful addition to any herb garden. Its sweet, spicy flavor makes it a great addition to many different types of cuisine, and its striking appearance can add a decorative touch to salads and other dishes.
Lemon basil (Ocimum citriodorum) is a variety of basil that is known for its citrusy flavor and fragrance.
The leaves of lemon basil are a bright green color and are slightly smaller than those of other basil varieties. They have a slightly pointed tip and a delicate texture. The leaves also have a lovely distinct lemon scent.
The flavor of lemon basil is similar to that of traditional basil, but with a subtle lemon twist. It has a bright, tangy flavor that is perfect for adding to salads, sauces, and dressings. Lemon basil pairs well with fish, poultry, and vegetables, and it is commonly used in Southeast Asian cuisine, especially Thai cuisine.
This is one of my favorite basil cultivars, both for eating and growing. I usually grow it in a pot on the porch so that I can run a hand through the planting as I walk by, releasing its cheerful citrusy scent into the air.
It’s also quite lovely on salads, as it adds both a basil and lemon kick.
Thai basil (Ocimum basilicum var. thyrsiflora) is a variety of basil that is known for its strong, spicy flavor and aroma.
The leaves of Thai basil are a deep green color with a slightly purple tint and have a glossy surface. They are slightly pointed and have a distinctive anise-like flavor with notes of licorice and cinnamon. The aroma of Thai basil is also strong and sweet, with hints of mint and clove.
Thai basil is a staple in Thai and other Asian cuisine and is commonly used in stir-fries, curries, soups, and salads to delightful effect. It pairs beautifully with chile peppers, garlic, ginger, and coconut milk.
This is a beautiful basil to grow in the garden, with its contrasting green and purple coloring, and bees love the flowers.
Purple Ruffles basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Purple Ruffles’) is a unique and visually striking variety of basil that is known for its deep purple leaves and ruffled texture.
The plant has a bushy growth habit and can reach a height of about 2 feet. The leaves are large and deeply ruffled, with a shiny surface and a rich, deep purple color. The plant produces small, pinkish-purple flowers in late summer.
Purple Ruffles basil has a mild flavor with a slightly spicy, clove-like taste. It is commonly used in Mediterranean and Italian cuisine and pairs well with tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, and balsamic vinegar.
As an addition to your herb garden, the photo above says it all. It’s just gorgeous, with its big lettuce-like leaves and deep mahogany coloring.
Cinnamon basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Cinnamon’) is known for its strong cinnamon-like aroma and flavor.
The plant has a bushy growth habit and can reach a height of about 2 feet. The leaves are a bright green color and have a slightly pointed shape with a slightly serrated edge. The leaves also have a shiny surface and can be slightly larger than other basil varieties.
Cinnamon basil has a distinctive aroma and flavor that is similar to cinnamon or cassia bark. It is commonly used in Southeast Asian cuisine, particularly in Thai dishes, and can be added to stir-fries, curries, and soups.
Some bakers use this basil in their recipes, although I personally haven’t tried it. I love it in the garden because of its bright green leaves and dense growing patterns. I grow this one mainly for the bees, and so it’s a visual bonus when the purple flower stems emerge against the green background.
Pesto Perpetuo basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Pesto Perpetuo’) is a unique variety of basil that’s valued for its ornamental qualities and culinary uses. This variety has a compact and bushy but upright growth habit and can reach a height over 24 inches. Its leaves are small, variegated, and highly fragrant, with a bright green center and creamy white edges.
In terms of flavor, Pesto Perpetuo basil has a sweet and mild flavor with subtle notes of lemon and mint. It is commonly used in Italian and Mediterranean cuisine and is a great choice for making pesto, salads, and pasta dishes.
I failed to photograph this plant until late in the season — October — so it looks a little scraggly here, but I want to emphasize how beautiful this plant is. (The thin-needled stems you see intertwined are from the French tarragon plant off to the left.)
This variety of basil is very slow to flower, so it produces an abundance of leaves throughout the growing season and requires very little maintenance, and is always ready for a fresh batch of pesto or delicious Caprese salad all season long.
include because bees love it
Holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum), also known as Tulsi, is a type of basil that is considered sacred in Hinduism and is widely used in Ayurvedic medicine.
The plant has a tall, upright growth habit and can reach a height of about 2-3 feet. The leaves are slender and pointed, with a slightly serrated edge and a bright green color. The plant produces small, delicate white or lavendar flowers in the summer.
Holy basil has a complex flavor profile that is slightly spicy and peppery, with notes of clove, anise, and mint. It is commonly used in Indian and Southeast Asian cuisine and is a popular choice for curries, soups, and stews.
This cultivar was gifted to me by a gardener friend, and one thing I must note five years later, is that this cultivar is a very hardy self-seeder. Because bees love the flowers so much, I grow it for that purpose, and the flowers naturally drop their seeds during the season.
But unlike other basils, Holy basil’s seeds are strong germinators, and the plants have returned year after year. So, if you have a spot in your garden that you can devote to this basil, I highly recommend it!
I hope this article has inspired you to try growing basil in your garden and explore the beautiful and tasty varieties that grow well here in the U.S.