Basil Varieties: A Cook's Guide to Uncommon Basils

"With Basil then I will begin / Whose scent is wondrous pleasing"

| June/July 2010

  • 'Siam Queen' is a beautiful, award-winning Thai basil with a spicy taste.
    Photo by Rob Cardillo
  • 'African Blue' basil has purple flowers that bloom in the middle of summer. A sprig of this cultivar with the flower and a few leaves is a great garnish.
    Photo by Jerry Pavia
  • Try a bed of unexpected basils, like 'Pesto Perpetuo', 'Siam Queen' and 'Osmin'. Click on the IMAGE GALLERY and click NEXT for more basil images.
    Photo by Rob Cardillo
  • The purple bracts of 'Cardinal' help this pretty basil stand out in the garden.
    Photo by Rob Cardillo
  • Your kitchen garden can masquerade as a formal English garden with 'Pesto Perpetuo'. The tight shape and unusual cream and green leaves can make this basil look like a rare boxwood.
    Photo by Rob Cardillo
  • 'Purple Ruffles' basil has especially showy leaves in a deep, rich purple hue, festooned with a rippling trim.
    Photo by Rob Cardillo
  • 'Rubin' has dark-red leaves.
    Photo courtesy Richters Herbs

Sweet basil evokes hot summer nights beneath a starry sky, great platters of salad Caprese and endless bowls of pesto-tossed linguine. But sweet basil (Ocimum basilcum)—and the accompanying Italian foodie dream—is only part of the story of the genus Ocimum

Over the past decade, a large number of unusual basils—new varieties from commercial breeding programs and heirlooms that are now being exposed to a wider audience—have begun to appear in specialty nurseries and farmers’ markets. Transform the way you think about basil with a whole new palette of flavors and aromas. From the floral sweetness of ‘Blue Spice’ to the tang of ‘Siam Queen’ and the herbaceous sharpness of ‘Pesto Perpetuo’, these varieties will surprise your nose and tongue.          

• Basil Varieties: 10 Uncommon Basils 

Basil Recipes 
• Basil-Buttered Shrimp on a Bed of Greens
• Asian-Inspired Beef
• Basil Limeade
• Poached Pears in Basil Syrup
• Online Exclusive Recipe: Roasted Potatoes with Basil 

• Behind The Scenes: Basil Photoshoot 

Basil in the Garden

One of the best things about these unusual basils is their outstanding garden presence. While sweet basil is an attractive plant, few of us would plant it for its looks alone. But with some of these newer varieties, planting for ornament is a definite possibility. Take ‘African Blue’, for example. With its
abundant spikes of lavender-blue flowers and purple-stained leaves, it could easily be mistaken for a plectranthus or a salvia. Add a strong perfume, and you have a plant well worth including in any ornamental planting. 

When I visited Powell Gardens (near Kansas City, Missouri) last summer, I was impressed by an attractive mixed planting composed solely of basils. The bed was fronted by a dwarf bush variety, giving a tidy green edge. Behind were pillows of larger bush varieties studded with white flowers. Blending into these were patches of gauzy lavender-flowering Thai varieties. Several large columnar basils added solid blobs of green to anchor the hazy drifts of purple. Shadows were provided by purple-leaved basils, while ‘Pesto Perpetuo’ added a lighter color note. This bed of basils would be worthy of a place in anyone’s front garden.

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