Basil varieties go far beyond basic green "Sweet Basil," Ocimum basilicum, to offer a myriad of different scents, colors, flowers, and textures. Whether you'd like to add a citrus fragrance to a patio garden, to border a landscape bed with tidy mounds of green, or to accent a container with ruffled purple leaves, basil could be just the plant you need. Not only is it a versatile, fragrant annual for your beds and containers, it also has a flavorful bonus of edible leaves!
If you start sniffing different basil varieties, you'll notice they don't all smell the same. Some distinctions are more subtle - does 'Spicy Globe' really smell more peppery than 'Fino Verde'? Even "ordinary" culinary basils add a wonderful fragrance to landscape beds. There's no reason to limit them to your vegetable garden!
Other basil varieties have wonderful, pungent fragrances that go far beyond that basic herbal scent from your spice cabinet.
Lemon Basil and 'Lime' Basil varieties have strong citrus scents, especially if you brush up against the foliage. They're wonderful to plant near doorways or in patio containers. Since the most outstanding ornamental quality of these basils to me is their scent, I often tuck them in as "filler" between more striking specimens.
Many basils have an anise scent, like licorice. Thai basils tend to be the most pungent. 'Cinnamon Basil' has an intriguingly spicy scent, with anise overtones. Even my favorite Italian culinary basil has an anise note. On a warm summer day, these aromas blend with the sweet aromas of phlox and oriental lilies for a heady combination.
Not all basils are green! Purple leafed basils vary from deeply colored varieties like ‘X' to varieties like 'Dark Opal' whose leaves may be variably splashed with color. Some such as 'Violetto' are more red or burgundy in tone, while others like 'Purple Ruffles' are so darkly purple as to be nearly black.
'Red Rubin' is a favorite in my garden, both for its color and for the slightly anise flavor of its leaves. I love purple basils not only as an ornamental but also because their leaves turn herbal vinegars a lovely pink color .
When growing purple basil from seed, you'll find some varieties don't develop their color until seedlings have grown several sets of leaves. You may also notice an occasional rogue green seedling, which should just be pulled out.
On many basil varieties, the small white blooms are generally pinched off before they even form, to keep the flavor of the plant from getting bitter. If you're harvesting them for the table, basils should only be allowed to bloom toward the end of summer for seed saving purposes. But bees and little butterflies will enjoy the blooms on basils that you don't intend to put on your table. And there are some varieties of basil that you should definitely grow just for their blooms.
The gloriously large, purple flowerheads on Thai basils such as 'Siam Queen' are unlike any other basil blooms. I grow a plant or two for use in stir-fry and curry, but I always start extra plants to tuck into my beds and containers, just for their blooms. The lavender flower spikes of ‘Cinnamon basil' are less striking but still very pretty, and I like it in combination with Thai basil. 'Magical Michael' is a newer variety of basil advertised as having spectacular blooms. I ordered seed for it this year, and I'm looking forward to the show.
Textures and forms
Basil leaves can be smooth, puckered or "blistered," ruffled, rounded or pointed. Their size can be small and delicate, or large and sturdy. All these variations provide different visual textures for your garden landscapes and containers.
Compact forms of basil form tidy mounds, wonderful for container plantings and for edging borders. My favorite is 'Minette', a small-leafed variety that grows into an 8 to 12 inch globe without pruning. It has excellent flavor as a culinary basil and is easy to harvest by simply shearing off the outer tips of the stems. This year, I'll also grow 'Pistou', said to be an improved version of 'Minette'.
I love the multi-tasking capability of edible ornamentals. Why plant a purple annual just for color when you could plant purple basil for color, fragrance, and to accent summer salads? When you let them flower, both you and the butterflies will enjoy the lavender blooms.
So, start with a pot of basil for your kitchen. But don't stop there! Put the different fragrances, colors, flowers, textures and sizes of all those basil varieties to work in other areas of your garden.
You may end up with 12 kinds of basil in your garden before you know it.
 See "Get the Most from Your Herbs III: Save Some for Later!" for instructions on making herbal vinegars.
 See "Get the Most out of Your Herbs I: Pinch, Pinch, Pinch!" to learn more about the importance of pinching back basils.
I'd like to thank and acknowledge local herb guru Tom DeBaggio, who first introduced me to the many possibilities of basil. If you want to know everything about basil in its many forms, he and Susan Belsinger coauthored a wonderful book, Basil: An Herb Lover's Guide, c. 1996 from Interweave Press. ISBN-13: 978-1883010195
The PlantFiles entries for the above varieties have links to vendors carrying seeds and plants. Some of my favorite sources for basil seeds include Pinetree Garden Seeds, Park Seeds, and Renee's Gardens. Check The Garden Watchdog for reviews of these and other seed companies.