Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Purple Basil vs. Red Perilla

I have to share with you one of my little pet peeves.  I have several customers each year comment while they are browsing through the basil plants that they have "TONS of basil that just comes up everywhere".  Some claim that it must be a perennial basil and some claim that it just seeds everywhere.  I explain to them that if they have a basil that seeds so prolifically, then they probably don't have basil after all but rather red perilla.
Do you have a patch of purple basil that seeds like this?
Red Perilla is an herb and is often called beefsteak plant.  It is edible, but it is not in the basil family and does not have that lovely basil flavor, but it does have a pleasant flavor and can be used in many dishes.  The best description that I have ever read comes from The Big Book of Herbs by Arthur O. Tucker and Thomas DeBaggio.  I quote "Beefsteak plant looks so much like basil that some gardeners believe they have discovered a "perennial" basil, or, at the very least, a basil that self-sows so extensively that they will never have to purchase basil seeds or plants again.  This claim of a reseeding basil is another example of the old adage that if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.  Although it is not a perennial basil, beefsteak plant can stand on its own as an interesting, flavorful herb.  An alternative name used by gardeners who must endure continual emergence of seedlings every spring is "wild coleus"."
Red Perilla (Perilla frutescens) or Beefsteak plant.
Some of the differences are serrations on the edge of the leaves (although ruffled varieties of basils also have serrated leaves) and I notice a difference on the veining with the perilla have a little more curve to the veins coming down the leaves.  And, of course, basil smells like - er - basil.
In Japan perilla is called shiso and is frequently used in Asian cooking and often eaten with sashimi or cut into thin strips in salads, spaghetti, and meat and fish dishes.  In 2009 Pepsi Japan released a new seasonal flavored beverage - Pepsi Shiso.  There is also a green variety, but the red variety is often used to add color to dishes, even as a dye for some foods.
Green Perilla
Here are some pictures for comparison:
Purple Ruffles Basil
Opal Basil
Osmin Basil (purple variety)
Red Perilla.  Note that the leaves do not seem as glossy.
Another perilla of note is Perilla magilla - a landscaper's dream! 

Perilla magilla
Perilla magilla is an ornamental variety that gardeners love!  It looks like a coleus but can be planted in full sun!!!
I hope this clears up some mystery about basil/perilla.  Do you have any questions about your basil?


  1. Thanks - extremely useful! BTW I've heard that coleus is almost impossible to eat due to the taste.

  2. I have Perilla growing everywhere to include the sidewalk cracks. It is very pretty but the one plant I took out of Mom's garden has turned into hundreds in mine over a two year span. I am not sure what to do with all of this purple foliage.

  3. Make tea!

  4. Oh my gosh! THANK YOU! I've looked for years to figure out if this is truly basil that comes back every year and takes over. It's easy to weed out and it's pretty but it spreads. I hoped it was edible and did try it and found it a little more licorice-tasting than basil, but it looked so similar. I really appreciate you posting about red perilla. Thank you again!

  5. Perilla is deadly to livestock who graze it, so please be careful about where you plant it

    1. THANK YOU for thinking of the animals we share the earth with. :)

    2. THANK YOU for thinking of the animals we share the earth with. :)

  6. Bless you for posting this! We've got this All Over our new backyard. I told my husband that it reminded me of basil, but I just couldn't believe it was basil. We'll just keep mowing it over.

  7. I make pesto with mine-leaves, garlic, miso, pistachios, a bit of oil. No cheese. I also use it with ginger, honey, and lemon for a winter drink. Lamb marinade, salmon rub, and of course for making umeboshi.