Holy Basil vs. Sweet Basil

Written by Carrie Woodward
Published: November 13, 2022
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How are holy basil and sweet basil different? Throughout the world and in many different cultures, basil plants have long been beloved, popular herbs. In fact, there are more than 100 different species of basil. 

If you are considering which basil to purchase for a recipe or deciding which to plant in your herb garden, it is important to know the difference between the various types. You may find that one type of basil is delicious in one recipe, but completely unsuitable for another. If you have seen the potted basil plants at the grocery store or plant nursery, you may have wondered, “Are all of these basil plants the same?”

In fact, there are numerous species of basil and many other varieties in those species. This article compares two types: holy basil and sweet basil. While these two do have much in common, there are also several key differences. Here are some commonalities they share:

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  • Both holy basil and sweet ‘Genovese’ basil are members of the Lamiaceae family
  • Both holy basil and sweet ‘Genovese’ basil are species within the Ocimum genus
  • Both holy basil and sweet ‘Genovese’ basil grow natively in Southeast Asia
  • Both are popular herbs to grow and include in recipes, with the type of recipe varying by cuisine

This article compares and contrasts holy basil and sweet ‘Genovese’ basil. By the end, you should understand how each has its own history, traditional purposes, distinctive flavor, and role in cooking today. Let’s learn more now!

Please note: A-Z Animals does not recommend plants or herbs for medicinal or health use. We present the following information for academic and historical purposes only.

Comparing Holy Basil and Sweet Basil

CharacteristicHoly BasilSweet Basil
Scientific NameOcimum tenuiflorumOcimum basilicum ‘Genovese’
Common NameHoly basil, hot basil, tulsi, Tulasi, VrindaSweet basil, sweet Genovese, Genovese basil
OriginSoutheast Asia (India)Sweet ‘Genovese’ basil likely originated in India, but has grown for many years in other parts of Asia and Africa
Description of PlantHoly basil is a perennial plant that is most often grown as an annual and typically grows to be between 20 and 24 inches tall. Holy basil leaves are simple and grow oppositely along a hairy stem. The leaves have toothed margins and can be green or purple, depending on the variety. The plant bears flowers, which are purple or white and produce numerous seeds. Sweet ‘Genovese’ basil is a perennial plant that is most often grown as an annual. It can grow to be 3 or 4 feet tall. Sweet ‘Genovese’ basil leaves are simple and grow oppositely along a green stem. The leaves have smooth margins. The plant also bears flowers, which are white and produce many seeds.
Growing ConditionsHoly basil grows well in warm temperatures like those found in its native climate of Asia. It grows well outside during the summer or year-rouond in a tropical or subtropical climate. You may also grow it inside in a container. Holy basil plants need at least four hours of sunlight each day and will grow best in containers that have moist but well-drained soil.Sweet ‘Genovese’ basil grows well outside in a garden or indoors as a container plant. Much like holy basil, when grown outdoors, sweet ‘Genovese’ basil thrives in an outdoor herb garden during the spring and summer. It can also be planted to grow all year long if the garden is in a tropical or subtropical climate. Sweet ‘Genovese’ basil needs full sun. If you grow it indoors, ensure that it is left in a sunny location and in a pot with moist soil but good drainage.
USDA Hardiness Zone(s)10-11 (Outside)10-11 (Outside)
TastePeppery, spicy, like the taste of clovesSweet, fresh, minty, anise-like

Descriptions of Holy Basil and Basil

When you hear someone use the term “basil,” they may be referring to any number of different species or varieties within those species. Basil plants are species in the Ocimum genus in the Lamiaceae family. Lamiaceae is commonly known as the mint family or the sage family, and it includes many of the world’s most popular herbs and spices. The list of spices in this family include various species of mint as well as rosemary, thyme, lavender, and others. 

Within the Ocimum genus are many different basil species. Among these are the two we are discussing in this article: holy basil and sweet basil. Holy basil’s scientific name is Ocimum tenuiflorum. However, it is also sometimes called hot basil or tulsi.

The species Ocimum basilicum is often referred to as sweet basil, and the many different varieties of this species are also called sweet basil. This can be very confusing to differentiate between. These different sweet basil varieties include the popular variety Ocimum basilicum var. thyrsiflora (Thai basil) and Ocimum basilicum var. citriodora (lemon basil). Each variety brings its own unique taste and appearance and can be used depending on the flavor sought in a recipe. While the many different varieties of sweet basil can indeed be confusing, this article zeroes in on one particular variety of Ocimum basilicum that is often what people have in mind when referring to sweet basil known as Genovese’.

What differentiates holy basil from sweet basil, which we are using to describe ‘Genovese’ basil? Aside from being two distinct species, each of these have different histories, origins, appearances, and culinary uses. Let’s learn more about each of these types now!

Description of Holy Basil

In English, holy basil is one of the most common names for Ocimum tenuiflorum. However, there are several other popular names for this species including hot basil and tulsi, two of the most common. Holy basil has been grown for thousands of years in countries in Asia, particularly India, where it is believed to have originated. During this time, it became a vital part of Indian culture and Hindu religious tradition. In fact, it is also known in India as Tulasi and Vrinda, which are names for a Hindu goddess. In India, holy basil is still used as part of traditional Ayurvedic medicine and can be seen planted in homes, near shrines, and as a plant believed to bring good health and longevity. 

Depending on the variety, holy basil has either green or purple leaves. Leaves grow from hairy green stems and have toothed margins. The leaves are simple and grow oppositely along the stem. Eventually, a mature plant will reach between 20 and 24 inches tall. The holy basil plant produces purple or white flowers, depending on the variety. These flowers then produce plentiful seeds. 

Holy basil leaves with toothed margins

Holy basil grows from hairy green stems and have toothed margins.

©iStock.com/panida wijitpanya

Description of Sweet Basil

The species Ocimum basilicum often goes by the name sweet basil. However, the particular variety we are referring to today is Ocimum basilicum ‘Genovese’, or simply sweet basil. This variety of Ocimum basilicum shares much in common with holy basil. They are both technically perennial plants often grown as annuals. ‘Genovese’ basil is a very popular variety of basil. It is popular for being incredibly aromatic and having very sweet leaves. The plant can grow to be very tall, even up to 3 or 4 feet high. The leaves grow to be 2 or 3 inches long. Basil plants have simple leaves, with smooth edges. The leaves are tender, plump, and a vibrant green.

Holy Basil vs. Sweet Basil: Key Differences

Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s dive into more of the differences between holy basil and sweet basil. We will explore some of the differences between each, beginning with their histories. From there, we will discuss differences in appearance, growing conditions, and uses in modern life.

Growing Genovese basil

‘Genovese’ basil plants have simple leaves with smooth edges and a vibrant green color.


Holy Basil vs. Sweet Basil: History

As a plant with its origins in Southeast Asia, holy basil inhabits an especially highly-valued role in Indian history and culture. This basil species gained the name of “holy” basil because it is considered a sacred plant in Hinduism, a prominent religion of India. Historically, holy basil has been used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine. Even in the 21st century, it is valued as having medicinal and culinary value and is purported to have significant spiritual and physical power as a healing herb.

Though sweet ‘Genovese’ basil likely has its origins in Southeast Asia as well, it gained its name from being a popular Italian herb. Genoa is a major Italian city and the capital of the Liguria region. Historians suggest that basil was introduced to the Liguria region of Italy during Roman times through trade routes. From there, Italian people began growing the variety of sweet basil and incorporated it into many different dishes. Pesto, a popular sauce that incorporates basil as a main ingredient, is considered to be a traditional Genoese sauce. Sweet ‘Genovese’ basil became very popular and to this day is one of the most commonly-found varieties of basil, used in cooking many different Italian and Mediterranean dishes. 

Holy Basil vs. Sweet Basil: Appearance

You can tell holy basil apart from other species, including sweet ‘Genovese’ basil, by looking at its appearance – particularly the leaves.

Holy basil grows leaves that are flat and green or purple, depending on the variety. These leaves grow oppositely on a square and hairy stem. They are also toothed, with notches along the leaf margins. Sweet ‘Genovese’ basil, on the other hand, has leaves that are a vibrant green. They are rounder, more of an oval shape, and have smoother edges. Sweet ‘Genovese’ basil leaves also tend to be larger compared to other varieties and the leaves of holy basil. They can reach 3 inches long, compared to the average 2-inch size of holy basil leaves.

Additionally, holy basil left to flower will produce blossoms that can be white or purple, tube-shaped, and full of seeds. In contrast, sweet ‘Genovese’ basil will only produce white flowers. 

Fresh holy basil plant (Ocimum tenuiflorum)

Holy basil grows leaves that are flat and toothed, with notches along the leaf margins.

©Sanit Fuangnakhon/Shutterstock.com

Holy Basil vs. Sweet Basil: Growing Conditions

Both holy basil and sweet basil will grow well in similar temperatures as their native climate of tropical and subtropical Asia. With their origins in mind, plant your basil as an annual in an herb garden during the spring or summer. If you hope to keep your basil plant through the winter, both types will grow well in containers inside. However, ensure that your sweet basil gets sufficient sun. It is resilient in full sun and will not do well without sufficient light during the day. Holy basil can be more flexible and will withstand both sunny conditions and partial shade. Both types should be planted in moist but well-drained soil that is fertilized regularly. 

Anyone growing basil should also know to prune or harvest leaves from the plant regularly. If left too long without pruning, the basil plant will begin to flower, with buds developing and the plant’s energy diverted into seed production. This will also lead your basil’s plant leaves to develop a more bitter, less sweet flavor. The Farmers’ Almanac recommends harvesting up to 20% of a basil plant at a time. This will keep the leaves sweet and ensure that the plant remains substantial enough to continue growing. 

Flowering holy basil plant

If left too long without pruning, the basil plant will begin to flower, with buds developing and the plant’s energy diverted into seed production.


Holy Basil vs. Sweet Basil: Uses

One of the major differences between holy basil and sweet ‘Genovese’ basil is in their different uses.

Holy Basil Uses

Holy basil has a major role in traditional medicine, in India and in other Asian cultures. Ayurvedic practice promotes using basil leaves and extracts to treat pain symptoms and various illnesses. Some of the health conditions it is said to treat include anxiety, stress, diabetes, and digestion. However, it is important to note that there is a lack of scientific evidence for these traditional remedies. Until further research is published, we do not have proof that consuming holy basil does convey any significant health benefits. Regardless of the evidence, however, many practitioners and Hindu religious leaders believe that holy basil brings health benefits and has a spiritual value. Because of this historic use in Ayurvedic medicine, holy basil has long been planted in homes, in courtyards and gardens, and even at religious temples, especially in India. It also shows up in religious ceremonies and traditions for those who practice Hinduism.

Holy basil is also a popular culinary ingredient. It has a spicy, peppery flavor that adds a new spice to curries, soups, and salads. You may find it on a plate of garnishes for Vietnamese pho or with an Indian curry. Other cultures throughout Asia also use holy basil to bring flavor to their dishes. Today, you can buy the leaves of holy basil in the grocery store to easily incorporate it into your cooking of Cambodia, Vietnamese, Thai, or Indian food. 

Sweet ‘Genovese’ Basil’s Uses

In contrast to the traditional, spiritual uses for holy basil, sweet ‘Genovese’ basil serves a different purpose. Coming from the region of Italy that is famous for its pesto, sweet ‘Genovese’ basil is still the basil of choice for many cooks who want to replicate “authentic” Italian dishes. Because sweet basil has a sweeter taste that is reminiscent of anise or licorice, it adds a distinctive flavor to many Mediterranean dishes. It is one of the most common varieties found in the United States and used in Italy today.

It is said that the people of Italy prefer sweet ‘Genovese’ basil when it is young and sweet, harvested by hand when the leaves are still small, mild, and sweet. This makes the leaves the optimal flavor for the classic pesto, a sauce used as a dip for bread or on pasta. 

As one of the most popular varieties of basil, it is easy to find sweet ‘Genovese’ basil plants to grow in your herb garden or buy at the grocery store as an ingredient for your cooking. You may also find recipes which call for dried basil leaves, which have a different flavor than the fresh variety.

Chopped sweet basil on wooden cutting board

Sweet ‘Genovese’ basil is still the basil of choice for many cooks who want to replicate “authentic” Italian dishes.


In Summary

This article compares two kinds of basil: holy basil and sweet ‘Genovese’ basil. Both of these basil types have traditional uses, distinctive appearances, and can even be grown side-by-side as two different plants in an herb garden or on your kitchen windowsill. Each will bring a distinctive flavor and aroma to any dish you cook. They are also an easy way to begin growing your own spices at home! The one you choose may depend on the type of cuisine and kind of recipes you want to make.

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The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/Abul Hossain Asif

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About the Author

Carrie is a writer and fan of all types of plants and animals. Her apartment is home to more than dozen different houseplants and she aspires to adopt more in the near future. You can find Carrie taking long walks or reading a book under the trees in the park.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.

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