What Does Basil Look Like? Descriptions with 12 Photos

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(This article was originally published on August 12, 2022 and was last updated on September 10, 2022)

A popular culinary herb in much of the world, basil (ocimum basilicum) is a green or purple leafy plant, and a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae) that shares some characteristics with its plant cousins. These include a square stem, pairs of leaves that grow on opposite sides of the stem, and whorled, irregular flowers.

Sweet basil (common basil) has a very distinctive appearance, but when you dig into the different basil types, you’ll find a wide variety of appearances and characteristics. Which begs the question: what does basil look like?

Background of green basil and purple basil leaves, with text overlaid that says "What does basil look like?"

Plant Growth and Structure

Basil is a bushy, leafy plant, with leaves that range from a rich and vibrant green color, to yellowish green, to silvery green to purple.

Tap Root System

Basil has a tap root, which is a dominant or central root, from which the other roots of the plant grow outwards. The tap root is distinguishable from the other roots on the basil plant because it’s much thicker, and grows relatively straight down. In contrast, the other roots grow outwards.

You can clearly see the tap root here in the cutting I’m growing in water.

a robust tap root system developing when propagating basil from cuttings
Tap root on an Italian large leaf basil plant

Basil Stems

Basil stems are square and slightly hairy.

The square shape of the stems is much easier to spot in larger, mature plants. However, you can also observe it in seedlings by feeling the stem, and noticing the hard edges as you run your fingers around it.

Up close view of the stem on a Tuscany basil plant showing how basil roots are square
Up close view of the square stem on a lettuce leaf basil plant

Close to the soil, basil stems are woody, and sometimes take on a brownish yellow color similar to the root system under the soil, changing color and becoming thinner towards the top of the plant.

Basil stems vary in color depending on the cultivar or species. Common sweet basil has green stems, whereas Thai basil and dark opal basil have purple stems (sometimes).

Purple leaves and stems on a dark opal basil plant
This dark opal basil plant has deep purple stems, which is classified as a purple basil

Basil Leaves

Basil leaves grow in pairs on opposite sides of the plant stem. The next pair of leaves to grow do so at a perpendicular angle to those that came before, which fills out the stem on all sides.

A cinnamon basil seedling with pairs of leaves growing on opposite sides of the stem
This cinnamon basil seedling shows how pairs of leaves grow on opposite sides of the stem

Leaves range from a vibrant green color to dark purple, with a range of shades, vibrancies, and markings in between – even on the same plant!

Different types of basil leaves on a wooden table, shows how basil leaves look different based on the varietal. From back to front: tuscany basil, dark opal basil, persian basil, sweet basil, spicy bush basil
What does basil look like? It depends on the type of basil. From back to front, appearance of different types of basil leaves: Tuscany basil, dark opal basil, Persian basil, common basil, and spicy bush basil

Common sweet basil, sometimes also known as Genovese basil or Italian basil, has shiny, vibrant green leaves that are a similar color to mint leaves. They are an oblong oval shape, coming to a pointed tip at the end farthest from the stem, and curving downwards towards the ground to create a slightly puckered look. Sweet basil leaves grow up to ~4 inches long (10 cm), and are smooth or slightly bumpy to the touch, with slight grooves where the plant’s veins are.

Close up of common sweet basil leaves

Basil leaves vary in appearance depending on the type of basil:

Napoletano, Mammoth, and Tuscany basils are known as lettuce leaf basils. They have large, crinkled leaves reminiscent of lettuce and gently serrated edges. The leaves grow up to 6 inches (15 cm) long.

A lettuce leaf basil leaf next to a tape measure showing it is 5 inches long
This Tuscany basil leaf is 5″ long

Whereas sweet basil has shiny leaves, Persian basil has dull leaves that have almost silver undertones to the green color, and some have purple veins and coloring to them.

Close up of dull green and purple leaves on a Persian basil plant

Dark Opal basil has deep purple leaves, although some leaves have green mottling on them, with a variety across the same plant. Both photos below show the variation in appearance of dark opal basil leaves the same plant.

Deep purple dark opal leaves on a white marble background
Dark opal leaves on a plant with some green coloration to them

Spicy bush basil is a dwarf basil with comparatively tiny leaves.

Photo demonstrating the difference in size between spicy bush basil leaf and sweet common basil leaf by showing them next to one another.
Common basil leaf (top) vs spicy bush basil leaf (bottom)

Lemon basil has more yellowish green leaves that are smooth, and flatter than sweet basil.

And some of the ruffled basils – such as purple ruffles – look more like purple arugula (rocket) in terms of their leaf shape and appearance.

Growth Pattern

Basil grows as a bushy plant, with common basil growing as tall as ~25 to 30 inches (63 cm to 72 cm), and the plant branching outwards to fill it out as a bushy look.

Plants that doesn’t grow bushy overtime is known as leggy basil, and it’s indicative there’s a problem with the growth, or a lack of regular harvesting / correct pruning.

Basil Flowers

Basil is a flowering plant, and with the exception of several sterile, non-seed-producing basils, flowering will result in seeds that you can collect and grow in the next growing season.

Unfortunaltey, most basils become slightly bitter in taste after flowering, and full bloom marks the end of the plant’s usefulness as a kitchen herb. As such, many gardeners will try to delay flowering by picking the flowers off the plant as spotted.

Depending on the cultivar, you might spot purple flowers, reddish flowers, white flowers, or pinkish-lavender flowers on your basil plant. If you stay on top of it, you can usually pick off the flower buds, which have a whorl like appearance, before they actually flower.

A close up of a basil plant showing what a basil flower bud looks like before it becomes a basil bloom


So…what does basil look like? Well, it depends. There is a massive amount of diversity in the world of basil, and despite different cultivars sharing many similarities, there are also a lot of differences in appearance. The best way to tell it’s basil? The distinctive smell, of course!

Collage with cinnamon basil leaves on the left and thai basil leaves on the right against a marble white background.
Appearance of cinnamon basil (left) vs Thai basil (right)

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