sweet basil photo, click for a larger image

By far the easiest type of basil to grow is a variety known as bush basil. I obtained some bush basil seeds from Eden seeds. It grows well in the garden. If you are just starting out, try to get your hands on some of this. However, sweet basil is much nicer, and only requires a little more effort to grow. To get a really good crop of sweet basil, I had to grow it in an old bathtub full of mulch (see photo). It is much more versatile in the kitchen because it tastes so much better. It goes well in salads, any tomato based dishes and on spaghetti. I have also started making my own pesto.

To keep your basil plant lush and leafy, keep plucking off the seed heads as they form.

Pesto Recipe:

as much sweet basil as you can get your hands on - it reduces in volume when you blend it
a few cloves (to taste) of garlic
bunya nuts (as a filler, this is a cheap alternative to pine nuts)
olive oil

Don't worry about the exact amounts as you can't really go wrong with this stuff. Just blend it all together with a hand held blender and taste it occasionally as you add the different ingredients. The more garlic, the better. Add the bunya nuts after the other ingredients as they can be a bit difficult on the blender. Add olive oil during mixing to help the blender and at the end until you get a good consistency. You want to be able to spread it through pasta easily, so it needs to be a bit runny. I use boiled, peeled bunya nuts instead of pine nuts to add a lot of volume. If you add too many it gets a bit crunchy and bland.

There are a lot of possible extra ingredients like mint, parmesan cheese, olives, anchovies etc. Add the olives and anchovies if you want to turn it into a dip for crackers. Don't add anything watery like tomato or capsicum.

Basil (Ocimum basilicum) of the Family Lamiaceae, is also known as St. Joseph's Wort and Sweet Basil. It is a tender low-growing herb that is grown as a perennial in warm, tropical climates. Basil is originally native to India and other tropical regions of Asia, having been cultivated there for more than 5,000 years. It is prominently featured in varied cuisines throughout the world including Italian, Thai, Vietnamese and Laotian. It grows to between 20–60 cm tall, with opposite, light green, silky leaves 1.5–5 cm long and 1–3 cm broad. The flowers are quite big, white in colour and arranged in a terminal spike. Unusual among Lamiaceae, the four stamens and the pistil are not pushed under the upper lip of the corolla, but lay over the inferior. After entomophilous pollination, the corolla falls off and four round achenes develop inside the bilabiate calyx. The plant tastes somewhat like anise, with a strong, pungent, sweet smell. Basil is very sensitive to cold, with best growth in hot, dry conditions. While most common varieties are treated as annuals, some are perennial, including African Blue and Holy Thai basil.

The word basil comes from the Greek basileus, meaning "king", as it is believed to have grown above the spot where St. Constantine and Helen discovered the Holy Cross. The Oxford English Dictionary quotes speculations that basil may have been used in "some royal unguent, bath, or medicine". Basil is still considered the "king of herbs" by many cookery authors. An alternative etymology has basil coming from the Latin word "basilicus", meaning dragon and being the root for basilisk, but this likely was a linguistic reworking of the word as brought from Greece.

List of basil cultivars

This list of basil cultivars is a comprehensive list of cultivated varieties (cultivars) of basil. Each is used as a culinary herb. Several are also used as decorative plants. All true basils are species of genus Ocimum. The genus is particularly diverse, and includes annuals, non-woody perennials and shrubs native to Africa and other tropical and subtropical regions of the Old and New World. Although there are an estimated 50 to 150 species of basil, most, but not all culinary basils are cultivars of O. basilicum - sweet basil. Some are cultivars of other basil species, and others are hybrids. It is particularly challenging to determine which species a basil belongs to. This is because basil cross-breeds easily, and drawing boundaries between species is particularly difficult. In fact, recent studies have led to reclassification of some portions of the genus.

Basil cultivars vary in several ways. Visually, the size of the leaves varies greatly, from the large lettuce-like leaves of the Mammoth basil and Lettuce leaf basil to the tiny leaves of the Dwarf bush basil. More practically, the fragrance of the basil varies due to the varying types and quantities of essential oils contained in the plants. The most important are 1,8 cineol, linalool, citral, methyl chavicol (estragole), eugenol and methyl cinnamate, although hardly any basil contains all of these in any significant amount.

Ocimum basilicum cultivars
Common name Species and cultivars Description
Sweet basil O. basilicum The best known, with a strong clove scent when fresh.
Thai basil O. basilicum var. thyrsiflorum 'Siam Queen' Called Horopa in Thai, scent of licorice from estragole.
Genovese basil O. basilicum 'Genovese Gigante' Almost as popular as sweet basil, with similar flavour.
Cinnamon basil O. basilicum 'Cinnamon' Also called Mexican spice basil, with a strong scent of cinnamate, the same chemical as in cinnamon. Has purple flowers.
Licorice basil O. basilicum 'Licorice' Also known as Anise basil or Persian basil, silvery leaves, spicey licorice smell comes from the same chemical as in anise, anethole. Thai basil is also sometimes called Licorice basil.
Spicy globe basil O. basilicum 'Spicy Globe' Grows in a bush form, very small leaves, strong flavour.
Purple ruffles basil> O. basilicum 'Purple Ruffles' Solid purple, rich and spicy and a little more anise-like than the flavour of Genovese Basil.
Fino verde basil O. basilicum piccolo Small, narrow leaves, sweeter, less pungent smell than larger leaved varieties.
Nufar basil O. basilicum 'Nufar F1' Variety of Genovese resistant to fusarium wilt.
Magical Michael O. basilicum 'Magical Michael' Award-winning hybrid with an uncommon degree of uniformity, and nice flavour for culinary use.
Lettuce leaf basil O. basilicum 'Lettuce Leaf' Has leaves so large they are sometimes used in salads.
Mammoth basil O. basilicum 'Mammoth' Another large-leaf variety, stronger flavour than sweet Genovese.
Red rubin basil O. basilicum 'Red Rubin' Strong magenta colour, similar flavour to sweet basil, also called Opal basil.
Dark opal basil O. basilicum 'Purpurascens' Award-winning variety, developed at the University of Connecticut in the 1950s.
Cuban basil O. basilicum Similar to sweet basil, with smaller leaves and stronger flavour, grown from cuttings.
Mrs. Burns lemon basil O. basilicum var. citriodora 'Mrs. Burns' Clean, aromatic lemon scent, similar to lemon basil.
Osmin purple basil O. basilicum 'Osmin Purple' Dark shiny purple with a jagged edge on the leaves, smaller leaves than red rubin.
Ocimum americanum cultivars
Common name Species and cultivars Description
Lemon basil O. americanum Contains citral and limonene, therefore actually does smell very lemony, tastes sweeter.
Lime basil O. americanum Similar to lemon basil.
Ocimum ×citriodorum cultivars
Common name Species and cultivars Description
Greek column basil O. ×citriodorum 'Lesbos' Columnar basil, can only be propogated from cuttings.
Thai lemon basil O. ×citriodorum Citrus odor, with a distinct balm-like flavour
Other cultivars
Common name Species and cultivars Description
Holy basil O. sanctum
(alt. O. tenuiflorum)
Also Sacred basil, Tulsi in Hindi, a perennial breed from India.
Greek bush basil O. minimum
(alt. O. basilicum var. minimum)
Forms a nearly perfectly round globe, with thin, tiny leaves and a delicious scent.
Dwarf bush basil O. minimum Unusually small bush variety, similar to Greek bush basil.
African Blue basil O. kilimandscharicum × basilicum A sterile perennial hybrid, with purple colouration on its leaves and containing a strong portion of actual camphor in its scent.