Thai Basil vs Holy Basil – Let’s Take A Closer Look

0
1093
thai basil vs holy basil - fresh green organic holy basil

I still remember the joy of seeing my first little lily grow into a proud, tall plant. It wasn’t much, to be honest, but it gave me something to be proud of. Before I knew it, my little lily quickly grew into a rather lonely lily.

Try saying that three times fast.

To cut the story short, as probably happened to many of you,  by the end of the season my balcony looked like a pre-school’s botany class. The walls were littered with recycled bottles housing all types of plants. Spiders, aloe, jade, and basil. 

My mom’s favorite always was the Thai Basil. She even bought a special ceramic vase for her favorite, separate from the rest, of course. The basil’s purple stem contrasted so nicely with the vase’s pearly white walls that it’s now a staple in my dining room for special occasions. My guests love to comment on it.

I mean, it’s just nice to have around. It also helps that it grows year-round, if you take proper care that is.

I’ll go over proper care in a little while, but I promise, it’s a simple grow.

As a plant, it works as decoration.

The leaves can garnish a plate.

They’re also packed with a wide variety of flavor, depending on the basil you’re growing. It can give off a mild pepper flavor with a note of clove to spicy, sweet anise- aromas. Basil goes great in a salad or as a tea. 

Today, I want to talk about two common strains of Basil.

Thai Basil vs. Holy Basil.

Thai Basil – More Than Just Pretty Purple Stems

Known as ocimum basilicum to some and that nice purple plant to my mom, Thai basil is a staple in Southeast Asian cuisine. Originally stemming from Thailand,  Its flavor and aroma are so characteristic it adopted its land’s name. Packing a mighty punch coming in anise- and licorice- lined spicy-sweet tones, you won’t hesitate to use too much of this in your next special dish.

Image by Maite Ramoz Ortiz

Identifying Thai basil is rather easy. As I mentioned before, The characteristic trait you’re looking for is its deep purple stem and leaves. However, there are some variations of this plant that don’t present this purple coloring, so be sure to keep in mind all the features of a healthy Thai basil plant.

When compared to another plant, say, holy basil, its leaves are a tad smaller and come with a pointed tip kind of like a spear shape. Think along the lines of larger mint leaves. Its leaves are somewhat shiny, almost glossy looking. 

Healthy Thai basil can grow to be over 3 feet tall! So remember to pinch out growing tips to promote bushier plants and to delay flowering. 

When cooking, think of higher-temperature dishes. You can drop a few in a stir fry or put it in soup since its leaves are sturdier than sweet basil’s.

While not the easiest plant to grow, there’s nothing out of this world. In fact, once you get the hang of it you’ll always have a basil plant growing in your home.

Growing Thai Basil

Thai basil is a tender perennial. Take proper care of it and you’ll have a healthy plant year-round. Leave it out for too long in the cold and it won’t make it for the next season. Thai basil is a tropical plant, you want to grow this in a very warm climate. As in, 0% chance of frost. A healthy plant requires fertile, well-draining soil, a pH ranging from 6.5 to 7.5 and some 6 to 8 hours of full sunlight per day

Once you have your location and soil ready, put about 6 to 8 seeds per pot. Thai basil has a low germination rate. Leave at most 2 seedlings per pot.

Remember to keep the plant warm and to pinch out growing tips to promote bushier plants and to delay flowering. 

If flowers begin to appear, be sure to remove them so that the plants invest their energy back into leaf production.

Like most other plants, keep a habit of watering regularly to keep the soil moist but not waterlogged. If the Thai basil plant dries out, it may bolt (put their energy into flower and seed production rather than leaves), but if you go too far with the water, it’ll be more vulnerable to fungal infections.

A good tip to remember is to use mulch to retain moisture if the summer is hot and dry.

Cooking Thai Basil

Thai Basil is great for cooking at high temperatures and giving your food a mild sweet licorice taste. While I wouldn’t recommend swapping sweet basil with thai basil in every dish, I would let your gut guide you on this one and take a couple of chances. You can really surprise yourself.

Photo by T – N G U Y E N 

One of the best ways to use your Thai basil is to make pesto. Easy to make and easy to store. Thai Basil Pesto is amazing for pasta. Mix together some crushed garlic, pine nuts, salt, Thai basil leaves, and some hard cheese with a nice Italian name, all blended with olive oil. 

Bam. Pesto Presto.

Thai basil really wants to go with high-temperature dishes. it releases its flavor better when cooked and does not get wilt/floppy as easily as sweet basil, making it great for soups. Thai basil can be used in a wide variety of dishes, but it’s mostly used as a garnish for chicken/beef curry.

As far as Asian cuisine, I recommend Thai, Vietnamese, Lao, or Cambodian recipes for inspiration. You could cook a hundred meals and not run out of uses for Thai basil

Holy Basil – Not as Alternative Medicine as It Sounds

It goes by many names, ocimum tenuiflorum, kaphrao, thulasi or just holy basil. It features a spicy, peppery, clove-like taste. Ironically, this may be the basil Thai people love most. They love it so much, it is known as Thai holy basil. It’s also huge in India for culinary, medicinal, and religious purposes.

No wonder it’s called Holy basil. It does it all.

Identifying holy basil is a little more complicated as it doesn’t come in vibrant violet strains. If you know what you’re looking for, it shouldn’t be an issue.  

Holy basil is a tall plant, towering in at 2-3 feet tall with hairy stems. Its strong pepper clove aroma is iconic. Another giveaway of the holy basil is the toothed edges of the leaves which are larger than their Thai counterparts. It’s an elegant plant if you ask me.

Almost like a bouquet at the center of the dinner table, holy basil has been a medicinal staple for thousands of years.

Growing Holy Basil

Holy basil is very simple to grow. There’s isn’t much that can go wrong. You want to keep it indoors, preferably in a small, portable container.

As for the soil, you want to use a light, well-draining soil that is rich with organic material. If not, most soil is fine. Holy basil doesn’t discriminate by riches. Here moist soil is king. Moist, not soaking wet. Make sure you have a well-draining pot and you should be set.

While holy basil loves the sun, around 5 hours is enough. Growth might be slowed but nothing serious.

If you’re planting more than one basil plant, space them 24 inches apart to make sure the air can circulate freely around the mature plants.

When placing the seeds in the pot, it’s ok to let them fall and slightly pat them down in the soil. Don’t go overboard here. 

Cooking and Healing With Holy Basil

Unlike Thai basil, holy basil isn’t as popular in cuisine. Except for Thai cuisine. They love to put it in soup and curry. 

Holy basil presents a light peppery flavor with a note of clove. While not as widely used as Thai basil, holy basil has great medicinal purposes making it ideal for tea.

Tulasi Tea as it’s commonly known has antioxidant, antibacterial, antiviral, immune-stimulating and stress-relieving properties. It supports the body’s natural defenses against germs, stress, and disorders of various kinds.

Tulasi has been used in Ayurveda and Siddha practices for its supposed treatment of diseases. Scientifically speaking though, its effects haven’t been completely researched and some questions still remain.

Just be wary of how much holy basil you’re putting in new recipes and you should be fine.

Dark Blotches, Dark Times

If you begin to see dark blotches on your basil plants, you’re going to run into a problem. This is usually caused by a bacterial or fungal infection, nutrient deficiency, or cold temperatures killing off parts of the leaves. In other words, things are getting serious.

You know you have a fungal infection if you see the discolored spots along with a type of fuzz on the stem. A bacterial infection usually just causes dark spots. If you believe the problem is an infection, trim off the affected leaves if the infection is small, or remove the plant from the garden altogether if it is past the point of no return. If your plants are too crowded, separate them or trim their leaves to allow for better airflow.

Potassium deficiency will usually affect the older, lower leaves. This problem may be caused by deficient soil or insufficient water (plants need water to absorb potassium from the soil).

If you believe the problem is cold temperatures at night, trim off the affected leaves and provide some protection against the cold, such as a cloche, cold frame, or greenhouse, or bring your basil plants indoors and keep them on a sunny windowsill.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I grow basil in the shade?

I would recommend putting the holy basil plant in a spot that gets at least 6 hours of sun per day, though I’ve found that it grows quite well in a sheltered, shady location, as long as temperatures are warm.

Thai basil is a little more complicated due to the cold affecting it more severely. 

How long does basil take to grow?

Thai basil and holy basil are usually big enough to start harvesting within about 2 months, though early harvests will probably be sooner and smaller.

How do I store basil, and how long will it keep?

You can store sprigs of either basil in a vase or cup on the counter for a week or so with the stems submerged in a bit of water (change the water every couple of days). You can also store it for couple of days in the fridge in a plastic bag, though it will go off and turn black quite quickly in the cold (some sources recommend wrapping it in a damp paper towel to extend its storage life in the fridge a little).

In Conclusion

Both Thai Basil and Holy Basil are great additions to any indoor mini garden and a must-have for anyone who wants to connect more with southeast Asian culture. They’re both easy to grow and make great ornamental plants. Thai basil, however, has a higher maintenance level. It proudly shows off its regal purple stem in compensation. 

If you want a plant to be able to pick off and throw onto a plate, you want to go with Thai basil. Use it to give a powerful flavor punch or as a last-minute garnish.

If you want a low maintenance plant perfect for making tea and oil on a lazy Sunday afternoon, holy basil is the way to go. 

Growing basil is a fun way to learn more about gardening and getting creative with your cooking. Thai basil and holy basil especially are historically and culturally rich, allowing for a closer, more personal connection with your plant. It sounds kind of cheesy, but after weeks of care, I do care for them. 

Remember to put your new basil leaves on some homemade pizza. You’re welcome.

Photo by Daria Shevtsova