Thai Basil vs Holy Basil (Tulsi): 5 Major Differences

Basil plants are a staple in many of our dishes at home, but I bet you most commonly use an Italian basil. This is the bright green aromatic herb you most often see in local markets.  It is one of the most popular herbs and has a delightful sweet taste when added to dishes. But there are other varieties of basil ,and we are here to talk about two in particular – Thai Basil vs Holy Basil.

Here are some other common names for the two plants:

  • Thai Basil – Ocimum basilicum  var. Thyrsiflora (also known as licorice, anise basil, or Bai Horapa)
  • Holy Basil – Ocimum tenuiflorum (also known as tulsi, tulasi, hot basil )

So what is the big difference between the two? Do they have different uses from the “regular basil” – also known as sweet basil – we have come to know and love? Find out below as we dive into the ins and outs of these herbs and list the 5 major differences between the two. By the end, you will be able to use these herbs like a champ in your cooking.

1. Physical Appearance

There are some pretty distinct differences in appearance between these two basil varieties. Take a look below to be sure you never confuse the two plants again. 

Thai Basil (Ocimum basilicum var. Thyrsiflora

Picture of Thai Basil

One of the most notable differences between this plant and other common types of basil are the leaves of thai basil. This plant often sports narrow leaves with purple stems. Thai basil leaves tend to be dark green in color and also may have a matte style which is very much a contrast to the plump full leaves we most often see with common basil.

Finally, when it flowers, the petals are often purple and white, and it grows to about 12-18in in height.

Holy Basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum)

Picture of Holy Basil

The holy basil plant has lighter green leaves that are serrated at the edges. In addition, it has a green stem dotted with hairs and grows to about 20-24 inches tall. 

Holy Basil is similar to Thai basil in that it produces purple flowers.

2. Flavor Profile/Culinary Uses

The best way to utilize both of these herbs is in Asian cuisines, specifically Thai and Indian. Both are culinary herbs and each have a different flavor so pay close attention to the flavor profile to get a sense of how to use them.

Thai Basil

Thai basil, as the name suggests, is most commonly used in Thai cuisine. It has a strong, anise flavor. Some say it even has a licorice flavor that pairs nicely with Thai dishes like drunken noodles or other Southeast Asian cuisine like Vietnamese, Lao, or Cambodian.

Holy Basil

This herb has a unique flavor. Depending on the variety, it has notes of lemon while also maintaining a spicy flavor. Avoid eating it raw because it does have numbing qualities. This is a popular herb used in Indian cuisine and for making medicinal teas. 

3. Smell

All basils are part of the Mint family (Lamiaceae) which tend to have robust smells. This makes them especially good for cooking (and keeping pests out of the garden). These two herbs are no exception to the characteristics of this family.

Thai Basil

The smell is strong and spicy, again showcasing the anise aroma.

Holy Basil

Just like the flavor, this is a very aromatic herb with hints of peppermint, cloves, and a lemon scent. 

4. Handling Temperature

Thai Basil

This is an herb that can handle high temperatures when cooking which is why it is great in dishes like stir-fries.

Holy Basil

While excellent for steaming and boiling, frying this herb can ruin its delicate fragrance. 

5. Origin

Thai Basil

Originally this herb is from Southeast Asia. It is a tropical plant that enjoys warm climates and, as we now know, a common ingredient in dishes throughout the region.

Holy Basil

Revered in ancient times for its medicinal purposes, sacred basil – as it was also commonly called – is a native from India, but was grown throughout Southeast Asia. The plant is still revered to this day and is used for religious purposes, essential oils, and for improving overall general health.

Recipes

Both of these herbs again have their roots in Southeast Asian cuisine which definitely means noodle dishes! We will list a few of the most popular recipes to try out with the fresh herbs, in addition to some that may not be on your cooking radar as of yet.

Thai Basil

Drunken Noodles

Pho

Authentic Thai Green Curry

Holy Basil

Tomato Basil Soup

Thai Basil Chicken (Holy Basil is used in this recipe even if they gave it this name.)

Holy Basil Tea

Want to Grow Your Own?

Looking to grow your own basil plant and save some money at the grocery store? Growing your own fresh basil will taste even better than what you can get at an asian market and it’s fairly easy to do. Plus, you’ll get the added benefit of attaining all the medicinal properties [ 1 , 2 ] these plants contain. 

Here is a quick guide to see if you have the basics to grow these plants. Many of the requirements are similar. Here is a breakdown of them:

Where to Grow

You need a place with full sun and a warm environment. Holy Basil won’t mind a little bit of shade, though. Fortunately, if you don’t have the space outside, both of these herbs make excellent container plants. Just be sure to place them in a sunny window or under grow lights indoors.

Feed the Plant

All you really need for these plants is some compost. If you notice either is stunted, you could use a bit of a fish emulsion mixed with water to give it a boost (or another balanced fertilizer of your choice).

Water

Both plants like well drained, yet moist soil. Sounds like an oxymoron, I know.

Pruning

Keep the plants pruned down to be bushy and prevent flowering. Holy Basil flowers have to be plucked several times a week because they bolt so quickly,

Main Growing Differences Between The Two Herbs

Thai Basil is an annual plant while Holy Basil is a perennial – if you have a warm enough climate or bring the plant indoors during the winter.

Final Tips..

If you want to grow Holy Basil, you are probably going to have to start it from seed. Many nurseries don’t house this magnificent plant. The most common variety you will find is Krishna Tulsi, but others include Rama, Amrita, and Vana Tulsi.

Different Types of Basil 

Don’t stop with just these two. The possibilities are endless with all the options available for basil. Growing a different variety or cultivar in your herb garden may be just the ticket you need to perk up your meals. See which kind of basil may be best for you. Many of these will be the most common types available:

  • Cinnamon Basil –  O. basilicum ‘Cinnamon’
  • Sweet Basil O. basilicum (also known as Italian Sweet Basil)
  • Genovese Basil O. basilicum ‘Genovese Gigante’
  • Mammoth BasilO. basilicum ‘Mammoth’
  • Thai Lemon Basil Ocimum × africanum (also known as Lemon Basil)
  • American BasilOcimum americanum (also known as lime basil or hoary basil)
  • Tree BasilOcimum gratissimum (also known as African basil or clove basil)
  • Purple Basil  – many different varieties are available but each are very notable for their purple leaves

Summary

I hope you all enjoyed learning all about the differences between these herbs that are packed with both taste and medicinal power. The best way to enjoy fresh Thai Basil and Holy Basil is really to grow your own so don’t wait! The sooner you plant them, the sooner you get to reap your bounty. If you are interested in having fresh vegetables as well, check out our article on how to start your own vegetable garden. Even if you only grow your absolute favorite fruit or vegetable, it is totally worth it. The right-off-the-vine taste is undeniable in flavor.

And with that, I wish you all the best until next time!

References

[ 1 ] Aminian AR, Mohebbati R, Boskabady MH. The Effect of Ocimum basilicum L. and Its Main Ingredients on Respiratory Disorders: An Experimental, Preclinical, and Clinical Review. Front Pharmacol. 2022 Jan 3;12:805391. doi: 10.3389/fphar.2021.805391. PMID: 35046828; PMCID: PMC8762307.

[ 2 ] Jamshidi N, Cohen MM. The Clinical Efficacy and Safety of Tulsi in Humans: A Systematic Review of the Literature. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2017;2017:9217567. doi: 10.1155/2017/9217567. Epub 2017 Mar 16. PMID: 28400848; PMCID: PMC5376420.

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