Holy Basil vs. Thai Basil

Written by Carrie Woodward
Updated: January 23, 2023
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What’s the difference between holy basil and Thai basil? Many of us know that basil is one of the most popular culinary herbs. It appears in herb gardens across the United States and the world today. It also has a long history of growth for medicinal and culinary use. The many different species of basil and their varieties appear in cuisines from many Asian cultures. They are considered by many to have valuable health properties. In particular, holy basil and Thai basil are the most common. However, this means they are also two of the most commonly confused. How do you know which one to grow, buy, or use? This article will help you learn the key differences.

Key Points

It is easy to get holy basil and Thai basil confused. Many people have difficulty telling the two apart because they have a similar appearance and may even grow together in herb gardens.

The similarities don’t stop there. In fact, holy basil and Thai basil are closely related and share many features. Here are some of the other ways in which holy basil and Thai basil are similar:

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  • Both belong to the Lamiaceae family (also known as the “mint” or “sage” family)
  • They both originate in Southeast Asia
  • Holy basil and Thai basil both have a distinctive fragrance
  • They are perennials, typically grown as annual plants by gardeners around the world
  • Both are key cooking ingredients, particularly in Thai and Vietnamese cuisine

However, suppose you are a cook or gardener. In that case, you will soon realize that holy basil and Thai basil differ. Knowing what sets these apart will be key for deciding which to incorporate into your recipes and which you should grow in your home garden. Without further ado, let’s dive into the key differences!

Comparing Holy Basil and Thai Basil

CharacteristicHoly BasilThai Basil
Scientific NameOcimum tenuiflorumOcimum basilicum var. thyrsiflora
FamilyLamiaceaeLamiaceae
Common NameHoly basil, hot basil, Tulsi, Tulasi, VrindaThai basil, anise basil, licorice basil
OriginSoutheast Asia (India)Southeast Asia (Origins debated)
Description of PlantHoly basil is a small perennial plant, typically grown as an annual. The holy basil plant typically grows to be 20 to 24 inches tall. Simple leaves with toothed margins grow oppositely along a hairy stem. The leaves may be green or purple, depending on the type of holy basil. As a flowering plant, holy basil will blossom with small purple or white flowers, which produce many seeds.Thai basil is a small perennial plant, also grown as an annual. Thai basil plants grow to be between 12 and 18 inches tall. Simple, spear-shaped leaves with smooth margins grow oppositely along a purple stem. Thai basil leaves grow to be one or two inches long and are dark green with purple veins. The flowers of Thai basil are purple and produce many seeds.
Growing ConditionsHoly basil thrives in warm temperatures. It can be grown in an outdoor herb garden in the summer or year-round in tropical and subtropical climates.

When grown indoors, holy basil will tolerate shade and grows best in partial to full sunlight. Ideally, your holy basil plant should get at least four hours of sunlight daily.

Holy basil plants will grow well in moist, well-draining soil.
Thai basil can grow well outdoors in a garden or inside as a container plant.

When grown outdoors, Thai basil will thrive during the summer or year-round when grown in a tropical or subtropical climate.

Indoor plants need at least six to eight hours of sunlight each day. If grown in a home that does not have sufficient sun exposure, Thai basil plants should have a supplemental light source.

Thai basil plants grow well in moist, well-draining soil rich in organic matter and slightly acidic.
USDA Hardiness Zone(s)10b-11 (Outdoors)10 (Outdoors)
TasteSpicy, peppery, clove-likeSweet, licorice-like, anise-like

Descriptions of Holy Basil and Thai Basil

Both holy basil, Ocimum tenuiflorum, and Thai basil, Ocimum basilicum var. thyrsiflora, are part of the Lamiaceae family. Lamiaceae is known as the “mint family” or “sage family” and includes many popular herbs. Some of the most popular herbs in the Lamiaceae family include mint, rosemary, oregano, thyme, lavender, and many others, in addition to basil.

The Ocimum genus encompasses many different types of basil native to continents worldwide. However, don’t confuse either holy basil or Thai basil with one of the most popular species of basil: Genovese basil. Genovese basil is another common cultivar of Ocimum basilicum, or “sweet basil.” Though Thai basil is a variation of Ocimum basilicum, it has a distinct appearance and flavor. Holy basil, too, has specific qualities. Let’s learn about these qualities and history now!

Description and History of Holy Basil

Holy basil grows outdoors as a small perennial plant in warm tropical and subtropical climates, such as India. However, it also grows well inside as an annual plant. Holy basil typically grows to be 20 to 24 inches tall.

Holy basil grows outdoors as a small perennial plant in warm tropical and subtropical climates, such as India.

©A Studios/Shutterstock.com

Ocimum tenuiflorum is the plant commonly known as “holy basil,” “tulsi,” or “hot basil.” Ocimum tenuiflorum is a sacred plant in Indian culture. It has great spiritual significance in Ayurvedic medicine and is often planted near Hindu shrines. It is from this medicinal practice that the plant also became known as “Tulasi” or “Vrinda,” representing the plant’s manifestation of a Hindu goddess.

Ocimum tenuiflorum, or holy basil, is one of the thousands of flowering plant species in the Lamiaceae family. Holy basil, specifically, originates in Southeast Asia. It has been used for thousands of years in India to treat illness and is a sacred plant in Hinduism.

Holy basil grows outdoors as a small perennial plant in warm tropical and subtropical climates, such as India. However, it also grows well inside as an annual plant. Holy basil typically grows to be 20 to 24 inches tall. The leaves are green or purple, have toothed margins, and grow oppositely along a hairy stem. The leaves may be green or purple, depending on the type of holy basil. The plant’s flowers grow purple or white and produce many seeds.

Description of Thai Basil

Ocimum basilicum var. thyrsiflora is commonly known as "Thai basil."

Thai Basil is a variety of Ocimum basilicum, widely known as “great basil” or “sweet basil.”

©Jtas/Shutterstock.com

Ocimum basilicum var. thyrsiflora is commonly known as “Thai basil.” Thai Basil is a variety of Ocimum basilicum, widely known as “great basil” or “sweet basil.” The plant is also sometimes known as “anise basil” or “licorice basil” because of its licorice-like flavor. Thai basil is popular throughout Asia and has long been a key ingredient in Asian cuisine, particularly Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam.

As a variation of a basil species, Ocimum basilicum var. thyrsiflora is also a member of the Lamiaceae family along with holy basil. Like holy basil, Thai basil is a perennial plant frequently grown annually. However, Thai basil plants are smaller and grow between 12 and 18 inches tall. While Thai basil plants also have simple leaves, their margins are smooth and spear-shaped, in a vibrant green color with purple veins.

Key Differences

Holy basil and Thai basil have much in common. Although they are closely related members of the same family and genus, several differences set them apart. The most significant differences relate to their histories, uses, appearance, and taste. Let’s explore those similarities and differences.

Holy Basil vs. Thai Basil: History

Both holy basil and Thai basil are native to Southeast Asia. They now grow in Australia, India, Pakistan, Thailand, and other countries.

The name “holy basil” comes from the traditional belief that it conveys physical and spiritual benefits. Holy basil is thought to have originated in the north-central region of India. However, it now grows in many tropical and subtropical climates. For centuries, practitioners of Hinduism cultivated holy basil as a medicinal plant known to have spiritual powers. Today, it remains a vital part of Ayurvedic practice. People who follow Ayurvedic principles eat fresh holy basil flowers, leaves, and seeds while using holy basil products for medical treatment and cooking.

Thai basil also originated in Southeast Asia and, despite its name, may have also come from the geographic region now known as India. People across Asian cultures cultivated this variation for thousands of years. However, Thai basil has yet to gain recognition for providing spiritual benefits. Instead, it became an essential cooking ingredient. To this day, Thai basil appears in numerous dishes in Asian cuisines, such as Thai Panang curry and Vietnamese pho.

Holy Basil vs. Thai Basil: Appearance

Holy basil has green, hairy stems and large, oval, green leaves when thriving. The leaves have toothed edges, are a duller green color, and typically grow to be one or two inches long. Holy basil plants generally grow to be 20 or 24 inches tall. Holy basil flowers with short-lived, edible blooms that are pink. These flowers are very small and arise from the top of the basil plant stems.

The Thai basil plant is smaller than holy basil and typically grows 12 to 18 inches tall. Green Thai basil leaves are bright green and shiny, with smooth edges and a mint- or spear-like shape. In contrast, Thai basil leaves grow purple or green depending on the variety. As the Thai basil plant grows, the stems grow to be a darker purple color, with leaves that are also one or two inches long. The dark purple flowers grow at the top of the plant from the purple stems. Thai basil flowers are edible but not usually considered to be appetizing.

Holy Basil vs. Thai Basil: Cultivation

Growing Holy Basil

Holy basil grows well outdoors during the summer or year-round in tropical or subtropical climates as a small, flowering shrub. It will grow quickly and propagate through its numerous seeds in moist, well-drained soil, warm temperatures, and full or partial sunlight. Indoors, holy basil should get at least four hours of sunlight each day.

You can quickly propagate holy basil from either a seed or a cutting. It brings a strong, fragrant aroma to an outdoor garden or sunny windowsill inside.

Growing Thai Basil

Thai basil will also grow well outdoors in a garden or inside as a container plant. Like holy basil, Thai basil can be grown outdoors in most warm summer temperatures or year-round in tropical or subtropical climates. However, Thai basil plants grown indoors need more sun than holy basil and should get at least six to eight hours of sunlight each day.

Holy Basil vs. Thai Basil: Taste

Some of the most significant differences between holy basil and Thai basil are related to their tastes.

The flavor of holy basil is often described as pungent, warm, spicy, and peppery, with hints of clove. The taste does vary by the variety of holy basil. Some people describe holy basil as having a mint-like quality, bringing a pleasant freshness or tingling feeling to the mouth. Still, it can typically be described as a combination of mint, cloves, and pepper.

In contrast, people describe Thai basil as having flavors reminiscent of licorice or anise. It has a distinct, milder flavor that is also savory.

Holy Basil vs. Thai Basil: Uses

Holy basil has traditionally been used in Ayurvedic medicine. It is a popular ingredient for treating illnesses and a flavorful cooking herb. In India, it is planted in garden courtyards and sometimes incorporated into weddings and funerals. Holy basil is used in various significant life events to promote positivity and be used in daily worship. Some people incorporate holy basil into their diet as a health supplement through tea or extracts. Because it is rich in antioxidants and has anti-inflammatory properties, some believe that consuming holy basil brings numerous holistic health benefits. Modern medical studies indicate some favorable, therapeutic impacts from ingesting holy basil, with no significant adverse effects reported.

Cooks often add Thai basil as an ingredient to many different recipes. You will find it shared fresh, as a garnish, and as part of the cooking process. Because Thai basil is so savory and spicy, with a unique licorice-like taste, it brings a distinct flavor to any dish. You may find it added to Panang curry at a Thai restaurant or in a salad. If eating at a Vietnamese restaurant, you will often see Thai basil on the side. You may add it to a pho soup with bean sprouts, hot peppers, or citrus wedges.

Varieties of Holy Basil and Thai Basil

There are several major varieties of holy basil that are popularly cultivated:

  • Rama: A cooling, green variety. Rama has green foliage, purple blossoms, and a green or purple stem, depending on the season.
  • Krishna: Dark green or purple leaves are known for having robust medicinal qualities. 
  • Kapoor: This is a strong-flavored, spicy variety most commonly grown in the United States. It grows very well outdoors but is not ideal for indoor cultivation. Whether or not this is part of the Ocimum tenuiflorum species is debated.

Thai basil is actually a popular variety of the Ocimum basilicum species. Other varieties of Ocimum basilicum include:

  • Mrs. Burns’ Lemon basil (Ocimum basilicum var. citriodora): An heirloom variety cultivated in the United States, which has a strong lemon flavor and large leaves.

In Summary

This article compares two common types of basil, one of the world’s most popular herbs and one which has been grown for thousands of years. We reviewed the key characteristics of each and discussed their positioning in culture, cooking, and religion. With this knowledge in mind, you can consider growing your own basil plant and incorporating holy basil and Thai basil into your cooking or health practices.

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The photo featured at the top of this post is © Jtas/Shutterstock.com


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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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