Choosing from the array of basil varieties to plant might be the most difficult part of growing this herb. It has minimal growing requirements—full sun (at least six hours a day), warm temperatures (above 50 degrees F) night and day and fertile soil with adequate moisture—but there are more than 40 known varieties (as well as many ways to market it to sell). Your local garden center probably offers a few varieties as seedlings, but to grow the most unusual basils, you’ll need to start from seed.
To help narrow your selection, determine how you will use it: to color in the landscape, as an ingredient in food or drinks, as a garnish, or to make a year’s supply of pesto (or any of our five creative uses). Below is a list of 10 varieties and their uses to help you make your decision.
1. Christmas Basil
With 2-inch, glossy green leaves and purple flowers, Christmas basil adds fruity flavor to salads and drinks, and the plants are gorgeous in the landscape. A beautiful border plant, it averages 16 to 20 inches tall.
2. Cinnamon Basil
This variety has a delightful fragrance and spicy flavor. A beautiful, 25- to 30-inch-tall plant with dark-purple stems and flowers accented with small, glossy leaves, it’s my favorite basil to use for fresh arrangements and in fruit salads and garnishes.
3. Dark Opal Basil
A must in my garden, Dark Opal basil adds color to fresh summer floral displays and depth to dried arrangements and wreaths. Beautiful and spicy in a salad or garnish, it can also be made into pesto, which adds an unexpected color and flavor to your pasta or bruschetta. The plants are attractive in the herb garden, ranging from 14 to 20 inches in height with purple stems, flower and leaves.
4. Holy Basil
A revered plant in the Hindu religion, Holy basil is also referred to as Sacred basil or Tulsi. Its leaves can be used to make tea for boosting your immune system. It is a beautiful plant in the garden with mottled green and purple leaves and grows to about 12 to 14 inches tall.
5. Lemon Basil
This variety can be added to salads and fish dishes with abandon. A sprig of Lemon basil in a glass of iced tea is particularly delightful on a hot summer day. The 20- to 24-inch plants are light green with white flowers and 2½-inch-long leaves.
6. Lime Basil
With small green leaves on compact, 12- to 16-inch plants with white flowers, this variety’s lime scent and flavor makes it great in fish and chicken dishes. A simple syrup infused with Lime basil is a delicious addition to tea and margaritas.
7. Spicy Bush Basil
The cutie of the basil garden, Spicy Bush basil has tiny leaves on small, mounded plants, which are perfect for pots or lining the garden in bonsai-like fashion. It only takes a few of this variety’s intensely flavored leaves to add a punch to a sauce or soup. The plants are a soft green and about 8 to 10 inches in height and width, with 1/2- to 1-inch-long leaves.
8. Purple Ruffles Basil
A feathery variation of Dark Opal, Purple Ruffles adds another dimension to the landscape, floral arrangements or garnishes. It has the same flavor as Opal and can be used similarly. It is a 16- to 20-inch-tall plant with 2- to 3-inch-long leaves.
9. Sweet Basil
This basil cultivar is the best choice for Italian sauces and soups and for making pesto. Varieties include Genovese, Napoletano, Italian Large Leaf and Lettuce Leaf. Plants range from 14 to 30 inches tall and are prolific in hot, sunny locations. Harvest the top four leaves often to keep the plant growing and sweetly flavored.
10. Sweet Thai Basil
An Asian variety with a distinct, spicy, anise-clove flavor, quite unlike common sweet basil, sweet Thai is a must-have addition to Asian cuisine and makes a nice addition to the herb garden for fragrance and color. It has purple stems and blooms with green leaves reaching 12 to 16 inches tall.