Hand-colored scanning electron micrograph of a Basil leaf (Ocimum basilicum), by Martin Oeggerli.
The word basil comes from the Greek, meaning ‘king’. Basil is possibly native to India, and has been cultivated there for more than 5,000 years. It is a culinary herb prominently featured in Italian cuisine, and also plays a major role in Southeast Asian cuisines of Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Taiwan. Basil is commonly used fresh in cooked recipes. In general, it is added at the last moment, as cooking quickly destroys the flavor.
The various basils have such different scents because the herb has a number of different essential oils that come together in different proportions for various breeds. The strong clove scent of sweet basil is derived from eugenol, the same chemical as actual cloves. The citrus scent of lemon basil and lime basil reflects their higher portion of citral. African blue basil has a strong camphor smell because it contains camphor and camphene in higher proportions. Licorice basil contains anethole, the same chemical that makes anise smell like licorice, and in fact is sometimes called “anise basil.”
Chemicals produced by various basils include: citronellol, linalool, myrcene, pinene, ocimene, terpineol, linalyl acetate, fenchyl acetate, trans-ocimene, 1.8-cineole, camphor octanane, methyl eugenol, methyl chavicol, eugenol, beta-caryophyllene