What Is the Difference Between 'Genovese' Basil & Sweet Basil?

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Basil (Ocimum basilicum) grows as an annual in all  U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones.
Basil (Ocimum basilicum) grows as an annual in all U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones. (Image: Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

The flavor that basil imparts to tomato dishes makes it a popular fresh or dried herb in most kitchens. While basil is one of the popular herbs used in Italian cooking, the herb is also used in hair treatments, perfumes and sachets. The oils have been used in medicines and soap making. There are more than 150 varieties of this member of the mint family. Two varieties popular for their culinary qualities include sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) and "Genovese" basil (Ocimum basilicum "Genovese"). While both are considered a sweet basil, there are distinct differences.

Sizing Up the Competition

"Genovese" basil grows to heights of 24 to 30 inches, with large bright green leaves. Sweet basil grows 12 to 24 inches high, with smaller leaves 2 to 3 inches long that are a darker green with a hint of purple. Sweet basil blooms white, while "Genovese" produces purple flower stalks. Both varieties produce a bushy plant when you keep them pinched back and provide lush green growth in the herb garden.

Taste Tests

Sweet basil has an exotic flavor similar to a blend of licorice and cloves with a hint of mint. The herb is used in many Italian and tomato dishes. "Genovese" basil has a stronger flavor that is a stronger combination of anise and cloves. It is the "Genovese" basil that is most popular with chefs when preparing pesto sauce. Both varieties of basil add a distinct but subtle flavor when added to salads and teas.

A World of Varieties

Basil grows all over the world, from Asia and Africa to Greece and Israel and many countries in between. The plant originated in India and has been cultivated to produce over 150 known varieties. "Genovese" basil is classified as an Italian basil from the Mediterranean area. Sweet basil is from southeast Asia and central Africa. The plant is extremely susceptible to cross-pollination so there are many hybrids.

Basil By Any Other Name

Basil is used in the manufacturing of medicine, candles, soaps and numerous other products. Whether you grow sweet basil or "Genovese" basil, the plants must be put in the garden after all danger of frost has passed. Both varieties prefer full sun. Maturity times are the same for the plants. The difference is that sweet basil is slightly drought-tolerant. "Genovese" basil suffers when the garden soil becomes too dry.

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