The world of purple basil is somewhat confusing to many. You might also read somewhere from a different source that Ocimum basilicum var. Purpurascens is purple basil and also read from other sources that purple basil is Ocimum basilicum ‘Crimson King’. Some people who write about purple basil are inclined to believe that Ocimum basilicum var. Purpurascens refers to the cultivar Purple Ruffles, while others believe that the Ocimum basilicum var. Purpurascens is actually the Red Rubin basil.
All of this confusion may be because, within the genus of purple basil, there is great discrepancy resulting from a lack of information and data establishing the details of the taxonomy, origins, and nature of purple basil. So it is important to start by clearing the air. First, the true and real origin of the purple basil is unknown. When British botanist George Betham first identified the purple basil and named it Ocimum basilicum Purpurascens in the 1830s, it is possible that Betham was under the impression that all purple basils are the same. We now know that such was not the case, and the term purple basil is now used to refer to basil with purple-colored leaves, and there are a lot of them.
Purple basil is a cultivar of sweet basil, and the key distinguishing feature is the purple color of this basil contrasting with the green color of sweet basil and other popular and commonly-used basil. Purple basil plants are great companion plants from an ornamental perspective since the color of purple basil is great side by side with other plants of different colors – may they be flowers, herbs, vegetables, or fruits. For example, grow purple basil with pineapple mint and oregano – this is a suggestion of James Adams, who earned his horticulture degree at Michigan State University and is a former Assistant Curator of the Fern Valley Native Plant Collection at the U.S. National Arboretum and former Curator of the National Herb Garden.
Species: O. basilicum
Cultivar: varies, too many to mention
Purple Basil Trivia
- The generic name for basil which is Ocimum is derived from the ancient Greek word okimon which means smell, clearly on the account of basil’s enticing aroma.
- While many people immediately think green leaves when they hear basil, purple-leaved basil actually has an important part in the history of basil. The basil epithet basilicum which is Latin for basilikon, which means kingly or royal in Greek could be because basil’s “Tyrian” purple color appears very regal, thus the name. This is according to respected historian Henry Beston in the book Herbs of the Earth.
- Anthocyanin, a purple pigment, is the one responsible for making some basils purple.
- In 1986, Purdue University’s Dr. James E. Simon tested 15 basils and it was a purple-leaved basil – Dark Opal – which proved most fragrant and most flavorful of all.
- Anthocyanins in purple basil is considered a potential source of red pigments for the food industry.
Purple Basil Buying Guide
Know that there are basil cultivars that have purple leaves and there are basil types and cultivars that have green leaves with purple flowers like Cinnamon basil and Siam Queen basil. There are also basil types and cultivars that come in both green and purple like Thai basil. There are also basil plants that have green leaves with purple streaks like the New Guinea basil. Our focus here is on basil types and cultivars that are purely purple – leaves and flowers. If you are buying purple basil, it helps to know what the most common types and cultivars are and what are the characteristics of each, to help you decide which to buy.
- Dark Opal basil – This cultivar (Ocimum basilicum var. purpureum) has leaves with deep purple color, making it an excellent ornamental plant. This All-America Selections (AAS) Award winner in the flower category in 1962 was developed by John Scarchuk and Joseph Lent at the University of Connecticut and brought to the market by Ferry-Morse in the 1950s. This bushy yet compact basil can grow to as high as 14 inches, great for attracting pollinators, and grows well in containers or mixed beds.
- Purple Ruffles basil – This robust 1987 All America Selection can grow to as high as 18 inches, grown primarily for its ornamental value. In some places where this is grown, it is noticeable how the deep purple color fades, replaced by a bronze-purple color which is generally unattractive.
- Purple Leaved basil – The Herb Society of America considers Purple Leaved basil as one of the “more popular basils” alongside sweet basil, cinnamon basil, lemon basil, and Thai basil.
- Red Rubin basil – An improved variety of Dark Opal basic, this tall basil that can grow to as tall as 20 inches comes from Denmark and is relatively new compared to other basil cultivars. The leaves of the Red Rubin are cinnamon-scented. This is an ideal outside plant perfect for summer when the leaves of the Red Rubin basil are in full glow.
- Well-Sweep Miniature Purple – Ocimum basilicum ‘Well-Sweep Miniature Purple’ grows to as tall as 16 inches and has deep purple coloring.
- Osmin purple basil has the darkest shade of purple.
- Amethyst Genovese basil – This sweet basil cultivar which is popular in Europe is the only purple Genovese basil cultivar. This is often used in salads not really for its taste but more for its color. This basil has thick turned down leaves which are fairly large and easy to use. Amethyst Genovese basil grows in USDA zones 9-11 year round. It is an annual elsewhere.
- Purple Delight basil – This cultivar is primarily grown for its shiny and glossy foliage or dark purple that is sometimes almost black. It can grow in USDA Zones 4A to 10A, blooming at around mid-summer, late summer or early fall. Soil pH requirement is from 5 (strongly acidic) to 7.5 (neutral). This is commonly found and grown in Fort Worth and Waco in Texas as well as in other parts of the US like Foley, Alabama; Pompano Beach, Florida; Albany and Conyers in Georgia; Upper Marlboro, Maryland; Madison, Mississippi; Raeford, North Carolina; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; and Rock Hill, South Carolina.
If you are buying basil for cooking, you can buy fresh cut basil in the market or the produce section of the grocery. You can also buy basil to plant in your backyard or garden. You can buy seeds, potted young basil ready for transplant, or full-grown potted basil. There are many herb farms and nurseries in Texas selling basil.
Purple Basil Production & Farming in Texas
Texas grows many different types and cultivars of basil. Growers plant after the danger of frost has passed because basil is very sensitive to cold weather. Basil are placed where they are exposed to as much sunlight as possible, while the soil around it should drain well. When basil flowers bloom, you can remove the flowers so that the leaves retain its taste, or you can leave them untouched so that the flowers attract bees and other pollinators. Basil is grown by commercial growers so that they can provide supermarkets as well as restaurants with a steady supply of clean, fresh-cut leaves.
Basil is ready for harvest if the plant is more than a foot tall. The first and second sets of leaves at the bottom part should not be cut. Leaves to be cut should come from leaf sets found on the middle and upper part of the plant. Basil thrives best when subjected to periodical harvests during summer. Some growers conduct harvesting by hand with no machine or mechanical tools while larger operations use a modified tractor-powered sickle bar/jerry mower. Individual or bulk packing requires hand sorting of basils.
Field production among herb growers in Texas takes up between 10-20 acres of herbs that include basil. Some commercial growers do not use herbicides when growing basil. Growing basil is not exclusive to herb growers, since some vegetable growers also grow basil. There are two primary locations for commercial growers of basil: Lower Valley and the Winter Garden region. Besides commercial growers, backyard gardens that produce a considerable harvest of basil target local selling of the product. A plot of 0.1 acre is sufficient to grow and harvest basil.
There are considerable problems growers have to attend to when growing and harvesting basil – pests like the Japanese beetle, slugs, and aphids threaten the health and productivity of the basil plant.
- Aphids – Kills aphids destroying your spearmint using neem oil, insecticidal soap, or horticultural oil. You can also use the pesticide malathion, which is the most commonly used organophosphate insecticide in the United States, or rotenone, a selective, non-specific insecticide typically used in home gardens for insect control. Apply through foliar spraying.
- Japanese beetle – The effective pest control method against this pest is to use pyrethrin, which is a combination of six chemicals (pyrethrin I, pyrethrin II, cinerin I, cinerin II, jasmolin I, and jasmolin II). An organic version of pyrethrin involves the use of chrysanthemum flowers. When using pyrethrin, make sure to mix 7.5 to 15 oz of concentrate in 5 gallons of water and apply enough to cover the upper and lower leaf surfaces.
- Slugs – The use of slug bait or copper tape is an effective pest-control method against slugs.
There are purple basils found in many parts of the world, from Thailand and Turkey in Asia to the mountainous regions of north America. There are purple basil types native to Africa and Asia. In the US, purple basil is commonly grown in Batesville in Arkansas; Emerald Lake Hills, Los Angeles, Merced, and Woodside in California; Bartow, Kissimmee, Lutz, Miami, and Umatilla in Florida; Hinsdale in Illinois; Anderson in Indiana; Benton, Ewing, and Mount Sterling in Kentucky; Bethesda in Maryland; Hamilton and Vinton in Ohio; Clarksville in Tennessee; Desoto in Texas; Norfolk and Radford in Virginia; and Spokane in Washington.
When you go to a store, you’ll see basil sold in a variety of ways. For freshly-picked leaves, this is usually found in the produce section. A small clamshell plastic container packaging keeps the integrity of the cut leaves intact. You can also see potted basil plants sold in groceries, supermarkets, and garden-nurseries. You buy this to grow your own and become self-sufficient when it comes to the supply of basil leaves. Dried basil is also sold in stores. These are sold either in bottles or inside a vacuum-sealed plastic pack.
Enjoying Purple Basil
A typical characteristic of a purple basil is having a clove-like taste. Purple basil also offers a hint of spiciness. Purple Ruffles basil has a sweet cinnamon and licorice flavor and a spicy aroma, which is disappointing since it smells nice but is almost flavorless if you taste it. Dark Opal basil resembles the taste of anise and garlic, perfect for both savory or sweet dishes. Well-Sweep Miniature Purple basil has a sweet and spicy scent but the taste is primarily bitter. Purple basils are best eaten with tomatoes (and interestingly enough, they are also the best companion plant for tomatoes because purple basil keeps whiteflies away).
After harvest and before delivery to supermarkets and restaurants, basil growers use bulk boxes to store harvested basil and kept in a storage room with a controlled temperature to keep the basil fresh and safe from chill damage. Freshly cut leaves displayed in stores have a shelf life, sustained by the air-conditioned surroundings. It gets pulled out from display when it is past its shelf life and unfit for selling. Refrigerating purple basil is not highly recommended since the leaves could turn black. If you have to, then the best choice for pre-cut Purple Basil is the salad drawer of your refrigerator. Drying it is also not recommended because the black-dark gray color is unappetizing. One of the ways to store purple basils is to make purple basil-infused vinegar. The taste, color, and aroma of purple basil is preserved this way.
Because of its color and how it complements the color of other fruits and vegetables, purple basil is great when you are making fresh vegetable salad. You can also use this when making pesto. Purple basils are also great if you use them for rice dishes. And because of its interesting color, it is not uncommon to find this in oils and vinegars. When cooking, purple basil goes well with olive oil, garlic, vinegar, pasta, fruits, eggplant, lettuce, and cress.
Consider this: unless you need your purple basil finely chopped, try to tear them using your finger. Some cooks believe that cutting purple basil using a knife alters the natural flavor of the herb somehow. Also, if your source of purple basil is your own plant, make sure not to over-water the purple basil because it dilutes the flavor of the leaves. Allow it to stress a bit as a result of little watering – this will increase the production of essential oils and improve its flavor. Keep it away from direct sunlight as well.
Purple basil contains vitamins A, C, E, and K, fiber, and antioxidants, and other vitamins and minerals. The Vitamin K in purple basil can help those who will benefit from improved blood clotting and bone strength. Including purple basil in your regular diet will help boost your immune system, fight aging, and help your body deal with skin ailments effectively.