Holy Basil VS Basil: A Detailed Comparison

Holy Basil vs Basil

There are over 150 varieties of basil in the world. Regular basil, often referred to as Genovese basil or sweet basil, is the most popular, and the one generally referred to when people talk of basil. Holy basil differs from sweet basil in many ways including appearance, uses, and taxonomy. In this Holy Basil vs Basil comparison, we will look into the differences and similarities between these two herbs.

Holy Basil VS Basil: Naming

Holy basil and sweet basil are like cousins. Think of them like lemons and limes. They belong to the Lamiaceae family and the Ocimum genus, however, they belong to different species.

Holy Basil is also known as Tulasi or Tulsi. Its botanical name is Ocimum tenuiflorum or Sanctum. Sweet basil is known as Ocimum basilicum.

What Are Its Uses?

Holy basil is deeply rooted in the Hinduism religion, Ayurveda, and traditional Hindu medicine. In the Hinduism religion, it was worshipped as it was considered as the Mother Medicine of nature. In ancient Hindu societies, it was used for treating different ailments, including sore throat, memory loss, fever, headaches, cuts, and acne.

Furthermore, it has antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant properties. Its essential oil has proven to soothe respiratory issues such as bronchitis. It also helps to improve concentration among people with ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) or (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).

It was believed to heal not only the body but also the mind and the spirit. It is an adaptogenic herb, which means that once consumed, it serves the body parts that need its benefits. Adaptogenic herbs are also stress relievers.

A study by the University of New England indicates holy basil helps with mental health illnesses such as depression and anxiety. It also helps to regulate blood pressure and to lower cholesterol levels.

Regular basil is mainly used for cooking. It is commonly used in Italian recipes like pesto sauce, as well as Asian cuisine. It offers some medicinal benefits but it is mainly used for flavoring food or garnishing.

Holy Basil VS Basil: Physical Features

Basil physical features

At a glance, you may not be able to tell holy basil apart from sweet basil. However, if you look closely, you will notice some obvious differences. The most outstanding difference is the texture of their stems. Holy basil has a hairy stem while regular basil has a smooth, hairless stem. The hairs in holy basil are more pronounced in older plants.

Another difference is in the color, margin, and texture of the basil leaf. Holy basil is light green while sweet basil is dark green. Holy basil leaves are rather straight while those of sweet basil tend to curl downward and inward. The holy basil leaves have tooth-like edges that are slightly hairy while sweet basil leaves have smooth edges with no hair. Sweet basil leaves can seem shiny especially when exposed to a lot of light.

Both holy basil and sweet basil produce tubular-shaped flowers, but holy basil produces pink, purple, or white flowers while sweet basil produces white flowers only.

Holy Basil VS Basil: The Taste

Holy basil has a peppery, clove-like taste. Some people liken its taste to that of Jamaican peppers. Sweet basil has a licorice-clove flavor. The holy basil flavor is more potent and becomes stronger when exposed to heat during the cooking process.

Method of Consumption

Both holy basil and regular basil can be consumed in a variety of ways. Both their leaves and flowers are edible and non-toxic. They can be steeped in water to form infused basil tea. They can also be infused in olive oil or red wine or white wine vinegar to make salad dressings. The leaves or flowers can also be added directly to salads to improve flavor or sprinkled on top for garnishing.

Food with fresh herbs on top

Since sweet basil is mainly used for cooking, it finds a wider range of applications in different cuisines than holy basil. In most cases, even when holy basil is used for cooking, it is for its medicinal benefits.

Holy basil is most famous for making holy basil tea. This tea is claimed to have numerous health and medicinal benefits. There are numerous studies carried out to establish holy basil benefits.

Growing Conditions

Sweet basil is an annual crop. It lasts for a year before flowering and seeding towards the end of the year. On the other hand, holy basil is a perennial crop. It lasts for many years with cycles of dormancy and blooming depending on the weather conditions.

Typically, holy basil goes dormant in the cold season. During the season, it flowers and seeds, the stems become woody, and they shed the leaves. The plant then enters a growing season in early spring that lasts through the summer.

Holy Basil

During the growing season, it has abundant foliage that you can harvest for use as you want. However, in the dormant season, the leaves lose their flavor and may become bitter. Therefore, it is best not to harvest them at that time.

This cycle repeats year after year, but if the holy basil plant is in a controlled environment like in a greenhouse or indoors, it does not go into dormancy, and you can harvest throughout the year. Ensure to add compost or organic fertilizer in the soil periodically, to keep the foliage thriving.

Both holy basil and sweet basil require similar conditions for growth. They can be propagated from seeds, cutting, or seedlings. Once planted, they require regular watering.  Be sure to water whenever the first few inches of soil dry up. If growing either type of basil indoors, in relatively dry air, you will need to water up to twice a day.

Holy basil and sweet basil require 6-8 hours of daily light exposure to thrive. They can survive in partial sunlight, but they will be less productive. If you are growing them indoors, substitute with grow lights. Generally, they require warm temperatures of 72 to 83 Fahrenheit and die or go dormant in cold weather.

Both varieties of basil are prone to pests and disease such as root rot, mildew, snails, slugs, mites, and fungal infections. Maintain sanitary conditions, ensure proper air circulation, and apply an organic pest repellant such as neem oil to prevent pests and disease.

Basil requires timely pruning to prevent the plant from seeding prematurely. As soon as you notice flower buds beginning to emerge pick them. You may use them in your recipes as you would basil leaves. Harvest on demand but do not harvest more than 1/3 of the plant at a time.

Nutritional Facts

Holy basil and sweet basil have a similar macronutrient profile, however, they vary in their micronutrient profile in that holy basil contains high levels of vitamins A and C, while regular basil does not.

Holy Basil Varieties

There are six main varieties of holy basil: Vana Tulsi, Rama Tulsi, Krishna Tulsi, Amrita Tulsi, Kapoor Tulsi, and Temperate Tulsi. They vary in appearance, chemical concentration, and flavor.

  • Vana Tulsi, Ocimum gratissimum is native to East Africa and India. It is a tree basil that grows wildly on roadsides and near waste. It has large leaves and can grow up to 5 feet tall. It can grow both indoors and outdoors. Vana Tulsi resembles lemon basil and some people misidentify lemon basil as vana. It has a strong clove-like scent and produces white blooms.
  • Rama Tulsi, Ocimum Sanctum, is a tropical, perennial variety of holy basil. Its distinguishing characteristic is the purple stems. It is mostly grown in India.
  • Krishna Tulsi, Ocimum Tenuiflorum is a close relative of the Rama Tulsi as they both belong to the same species. It is also a tropical, perennial that grows in India. It also has a purple stem and has a black pepper-like taste. Unlike Rama Tulsi which has green leaves, the Krishna Tulsi’s leaves start out green but become mottled purple as the plant matures.
  • Amrita Tulsi. It also belongs to the Ocimum Sanctum species and grows in Southern India. It is bushy and the leaves turn reddish when almost mature. 
  • Temperate Tulsi, Ocimum Africanum is an annual plant with a fruity aroma. It grows quickly in the warm spring and summer seasons. As such, it is loved by American gardeners. You can plant the seed directly in early spring and have it ready for harvesting in summer.
  • Kapoor Tulsi, Ocimum tenuiflorum, is the most popular variety of holy basil in the US. It grows within a short time but bolts within a year. It has less flavor and potency than other varieties, which diminishes its medicinal properties.

Conclusion

While holy basil and sweet basil have some similarities, they also vary in certain aspects. Visually, you can identify holy basil by its light green leaves that have tooth-like edges and a hairy texture. On the other hand, sweet basil has smooth, curly, and dark green leaves.

Holy basil is primarily medicinal while sweet basil is mainly used for culinary purposes. When planting or buying basil plants, determine the main purpose you want it for and buy the appropriate basil variety. You can also grow both types of basil in your garden and use it as needed.

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I'm Jad, a biologist, blogger, and experienced indoor gardener. I am knowledgeable in plant biology, particularly in plant cultivation and propagation. I founded HerbsWithin.com in 2019 to share my knowledge in indoor gardening with passionate home growers.

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