Who knew there were so many varieties of basil?

This year we’ve been growing five varieties of basil: sweet basil, lemon basil, Thai basil, purple basil, and ‘Pesto Perpetuo’. They’re still going strong in our vegetable garden.

‘Pesto Perpetuo’ is arguably the most beautiful basil because of its variegated leaves. Since it doesn’t flower, it also makes a stunning ornamental. It has a much stronger flavor than regular sweet basil—too strong for my taste to use fresh for things like Caprese salad. But it’s wonderful in sauces and for pesto, as the name suggests. In cold temperatures, ‘Pesto Perpetuo’ hangs on much longer than sweet basil so we can enjoy basil into the dark days of winter.

‘Pesto Perpetuo’ basil

The purple basil we have is called ‘Dark Opal’. It has a more pronounced licorice taste but isn’t as strong as ‘Pesto Perpetuo’. For cooked dishes, you can use it interchangeably with sweet basil. I love the way its leaves contrast with the green of the lemon basil that’s planted next to it.

‘Dark Opal’ basil

Thai basil (Bai horapa) has an flavor reminiscent of anise and is a must-have ingredient for Thai curries and many other dishes. Sporting purple flowers, I think it’s a pretty nice-looking ornamental as well.

Thai basil

Lemon basil has an intense lemon flavor that makes it perfect for Thai dishes or marinated chicken. It imagine you could even dry it and then make a tea out of it. I haven’t yet found a good use for it fresh; it’s too lemony and not “basil-ly” enough for things like Caprese salad. It looks similar to sweet basil but its leaves are matte instead of shiny.

Lemon basil

Sweet, or Italian, basil, is what everybody thinks of when they hear the word basil. In our house, it’s the most frequently used herb by far. I love it on pizza, with tomatoes, in pesto, on bruschetta, etc. etc. It has shiny leaves and goes into flower quite readily. It hates the cold and dies when temperatures get close to freezing but for the past few years, it’s come back from seed.

Sweet basil

There are many more varieties of basil than we grow. Territorial Seed lists 20 different varieties available as seed. Apparently there are as many as 40-60 varieties altogether but many of them aren’t commonly grown.

Here are some interesting tidbits I didn’t know but find quite amusing: The ancient Greeks and Romans held some pretty crazy beliefs about basil. The word basil (meaning “king” in Greek) is related to basilisk, a mythical creature resembling a dragon but with the head of a rooster. It was considered to be king of all serpents and had the power to kill with a single glance. The Greeks thought that basil was a magical cure against the stare, breath (apparently foul) or even bite of a basilisk.

The Romans, doing their best to keep up with the crazy Greeks, thought that in order to have a good crop of basil, you had to scream like a madman while sowing the seeds and curse the soil the basil was to be grown in (gotta try that next spring). They also believed that a basil leaf left under a pot would turn into a scorpion and that smelling the leaves would cause a scorpion to grow in your brain.

I bet you had no idea that basil was so dangerous! Remember to take appropriate safeguards the next time you use basil in your kitchen!