Holy Basil vs Basil: What’s the Difference?

Holy basil is a plant in the same family as mint and has many of the same medicinal properties. It is also an important part of Indian cooking because it adds flavor to dishes.

Common or sweet basil’s leaves have a lighter shade overall, have deep parallel veins, and grows in dome-like clumps rather than spreading outwards as holy basil does.

There are many varieties of basil which makes it’s easy to get them mixed up, so let’s talk about the differences between holy basil and regular basil since they look so similar.

Holy Basil

holy basil

Scientific Name: O. tenuiflorum or sanctum

Also Called: Tulsi, Kapoor Tulsi, Temperate Tulsi, Sacred Basil

Background: Holy basil is the sacred basil for Hindus, and is used in both their cooking and for creating medicines. The leaves of holy basil were buried with the dead in India to help them get into heaven.

How to Identify: Holy basil grows with purple stems that are hairy (as opposed to common basil which doesn’t have much hair on the stems).

Holy basil looks like a smaller version of common basil with more delicate leaves that are light green on top and deep purple underneath. It also grows into more of a bush than typical basil plants which naturally grow more upright depending on how the basil is pruned.

Types: While holy basil is just one of the many varieties of basil itself, there are even a few subcategories of holy basil.

  • Kapoor – Kapoor is the easiest to grow because it does well in so many different climates
  • Rama – Has the most medicinal uses
  • Amrita – Amrita has the highest concentration of rosmarinic acid which is said to help with anxiety.
  • Krishna – this variety is well known for its medicinal properties
  • Vana – is the tallest growing of these holy basil varieties

Taste: Holy basil has a taste of cloves and licorice. It almost tastes like common basil does when you let it flower and start going to seed, which can be a putting-off taste for people and is likely why it’s not commonly used in cooking.

Uses: Holy basil is commonly used for medicinal purposes and in holy basil tea as it has a lot of health benefits. Many people use the holy basil plant to help them with sleep, anxiety, blood sugar, and other healing properties.

Common or Sweet Basil

sweet basil

Scientific Name: Ocimum basilicum

Also Called: Sweet basil

Background: Basil is a member of the mint family, and has been used around the globe dating back to at least the 14th century.

How to Identify: Bright green leaves with smooth stems

Taste: Basil is a pungent herb that kind of tastes like mint and anise, but it’s also hard to identify those flavors as you’re eating it. In short, basil is delicious 🙂

Uses: Wide variety of culinary uses as well as having medicinal properties.

Holy Basil vs Common Basil Differences

You may have heard of “tulsi” which is the ayurvedic name for holy basil, so if you were wondering, Tulsi and holy basil are the same thing.

Taste

Holy basil differs in taste from common or sweet basil and tastes much more like licorice or cloves than sweet basil does. Because of this flavor profile, holy basil is not used in cooking as much as sweet or Italian basil is.

Identification & Appearance

If the leaves are still on the plant, holy basil can be easier to tell apart as its stems are hairy, instead of smooth like sweet basil.

holy basil vs basil stems

While the stems are the clear giveaway between the two, if you only have basil leaves it can be harded to decern the two.

Holy basil has more jagged edges to the leaves, while sweet basil is more rounded and smooth. But genovese basil is also a common variety and they have some jagged leaves.

If the stems of the leaves are more purple, it’s likely to be holy basil as many holy basil varieties do have purpling on the stems. If the entire leaf is purple, you’re probably looking at opal basil.

Uses

Both sweet basil and holy basil have what’s called “cineole” which is means it has antibacterial, antiseptic, and antifungal properties to them. This is why these 2 varieties are both used for their medicinal benefits.

In the kitchen, you can use both holy basil and sweet basil, while keeping in mind their different flavor profiles. Holy basil has a more licorice or spicy flavor, while sweet basil tastes more like mint or anise.

Can You Replace Holy Basil with Regular Basil

Sometimes in the kitchen you need to substitute an ingredient for another that you have on hand. While you can substitute sweet or italian basil in place of holy basil, I wouldn’t recommend going the other way.

The flavors in holy basil are so drastically different from sweet basil, that using it in a pesto or other dish can essentially leave you with something that tastes nothing like what you were trying to create.

Using Holy Basil in the Kitchen

While holy basil isn’t commonly used in cooking, there are quite a few recipes you can use it for.

  • Chicken Holy Basil
  • Pad Kra Pao (Holy basil stir fry)
  • Holy basil tea
  • Holy basil-infused olive oil

There are plenty of dishes you can use holy basil in, just keep in mind the wild differences in flavor profiles. I wouldn’t recommend swapping out holy basil for regular basil in the kitchen as your dish will not taste quite the same.

Where to Buy Holy Basil

It can be challenging to find specific varieties of basil, especially if you want to get seedlings or plant starts. While sweet basil is one of the most common types you can find in stores, it can be challenging to find fresh holy basil or seedlings.

Starting holy basil from seed is going to give you the most flexibility in terms of how many plants you can grow, the time of year they can be grown.

There are plenty of places to find holy basil and other varieties of basil seeds. Here are a few reliable options:

Should You Use Holy Basil or Regular Basil?

Both holy basil and sweet basil have plenty of uses. Holy basil is a powerful medicinal plant that’s been used for centuries in Asia and throughout the world. Sweet basil is more commonly used in the kitchen, but both varieties will serve you well in the garden as basil is a great companion plant.

Both varieties are easy to grow and maintain, so if you have extra space I would highly recommend growing your own!

Leave a Comment