Root beer plant seeds

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The leaves and fruit of Piper auritum taste just like root beer. The flavors of this plant are complex and aromatic, with notes of sassafras, anise seed, wintergreen, and pepper (the plant is related to black pepper, after all). Indeed, every bite of its large leaves or stringy, white fruits will bring to mind flavors that would find a place in a mug of root beer. However, it is not typically used in making the carbonated drink, and is only occasionally mixed into home-brews.

In Mexico, the plant is known as hoja santa (“sacred leaf”), due to a legend that the Virgin Mary once hung baby Jesus’ diapers on the plants’ branches to dry and scent them (an unlikely tale, however, as the the plant is native to Central America and southwestern North America). Local chefs work the peppery leaves into a variety of dishes, grinding them and adding to mole verde or mole amarillo, shredding them for use as a seasoning in soups and egg dishes, or simply using them as an aromatic wrapper for tamales and goat cheese.

One of the aspects of this plant that makes it taste like root beer is that it contains safrole. This is a chemical compound that also appears in the essential root beer ingredient sassafras. Studies on safrole have shown that it can be carcinogenic to animals, leading to a ban on its use in commercial foods (a safrole-free sassafras is now used). Safrole is also a key ingredient used in making the club drug Ecstasy, which doesn’t help its legality. Fresh hoja santa contains only small amounts of this chemical, so it is unlikely to cause any harm and won’t heighten your clubbing experience. But, as with all things, it’s best to be used in moderation.

The way you collect sassafras is to pull seedlings right out of the ground. I know, it sounds destructive, but it isn’t. Sassafras grows in clumps, and the parent tree sends out suckers under the ground, which then become seedlings; it’s a lot like mulberry. You find a clump—look for at least eight to 10 treelings scattered about—go to one about two to three feet tall, grasp the very base of the tree, and yank it straight up. You should come away with the seedling and about 10 inches of the root.

You did not get all of the root, you know, and this is a good thing. It will regrow later. So what seems a little wanton is actually good for the sassafras cluster—it lets the surrounding seedlings grow with less competition.

All parts of this tree are useful. Notice I did not say “edible,” because the leaves are the only part you actually eat. You know them as file powder, and without sassafras leaves your gumbo would not be gumbo.

I left the leaves of the seedlings I pulled with my sister and brother-in-law. They can make either tea or file powder from them. I took the twigs and roots back to California.

Elise Bauer

What’s the difference? They make very different teas. The twigs have a lemony-floral flavor and aroma that one author has compared to Froot Loops cereal—not exactly a selling point in my book, but they are lovely. The roots, however, are the “root” in root beer.

I am not a tea drinker. Coffee is my breakfast drink of choice. So I was not about to switch for sassafras. But I do like using flavored syrups from wild ingredients; I recently made a delicious fir tip syrup from the young tips of a Douglas fir tree. I then use these syrups to glaze meats and make homemade sodas, sorbets, or ice creams. Sassafras is a prime candidate for this treatment.

So the first thing I did was chop some twigs, peeling back the green bark a bit to expose it—the bark is what has most of the flavor—then simmered them in hot water. The brew quickly turned a pretty amber, a little like cola if you mixed it with an equal volume of water. I let it steep overnight and then strained it through cheesecloth and mixed it 50-50 with sugar to make a simple syrup. It was outstanding. I mean, really outstanding. Think root beer with a lot of lemon in it.

Here’s how to make sassafras twig syrup.

That was easy enough. But what I really wanted to make was homemade root beer. Root beer is my soda of choice, although I am also a big fan of good ginger ale. And I know how to make root beer at home, and it traditionally involves yeast and a small amount of alcohol—that’s the “beer” in root beer. I did not want to do this. Homemade ginger ale and root beers made with fermentation are tricky. I wanted a stable, non-alcoholic base flavoring I could then make into a soda by adding seltzer water.

The first thing I knew I needed to do was to chop the sassafras roots.

Very Early Root Beer

Way back in ancient times, and up until hops were discovered in about 1400 AD, people had to rely on roots and bark and other spices to provide the bitterness and preservative qualities in small beer. However, small beer did not become root beer until the Europeans settled America. Did you know the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, instead of Virginia because they ran out of beer? Before departing England, some water was brought on the ship for the long voyage, but water spoils in wood kegs after a short time, therefore beer was the main liquid that the people aboard the Mayflower drank to stay alive. Drinking seawater would have killed them.

Once the colonists settled all over the east coast, they built towns, and they built breweries too. However they were truly pioneers even in the towns, and they did most things for themselves, and that included baking bread and brewing beer at home. Unfortunately they didn’t have crops of barley or other grains to use when making their small beer, so they had to use other sweeteners such as honey, molasses, and cane sugar. And they didn’t have hops for bitterness, so they had to discover which plants in the new world would provide bitterness and flavor. That is the real beginning of root beer! It is truly as American as apple pie, and a lot older than apple pie. Some of the plant materials that have been used in root beer over the years include sarsaparilla root, sassafras root, dandelion root, ginger root, yellow dock root, burdock root, spikenard root, birch bark, wild cherry bark, wintergreen bark, prickly ash bark, spicewood, allspice, juniper berries, vanilla bean, coriander seed, licorice, dog grass, pipsissewa, cardamom, cinnamon, and even hops. Some recipes did not use roots, or relied mainly on one ingredient, and that’s where Birch Beer and Sarsaparilla Soda came from. However, root beer was the king in popularity even back then.

Home-Brewed Root Beer

This truly old-fashioned root beer would have tasted different from the kind you buy at the store today. It would have been a bit cloudy, and it would have tasted less sweet, and therefore a little dry. When I was a girl, my family made root beer once for fun, and I think it was a lot like those early root beers. My dad bought a bottle of Hires Root Beer Extract, and following the directions on the little bottle, we added it to a big pot of water, then added sugar and a teensy amount of yeast. We stirred it up, bottled it, and then capped the bottles. We made about two cases or 5 gallons, and yes, some of the bottles exploded. The yeast was needed to carbonate the root beer, and some of the bottles developed an excessive amount of carbonation and foamed all over when we opened them. The alcohol level was tiny, probably about half-a-percent. We kids didn’t like it so much, because we were used to super sweet sodas from the store, so we poured it over vanilla ice cream to make floats and the ice cream sweetened it up enough for us. Many people make their own home-brewed root beer from concentrates today, and there are plenty of recipes on the Internet for people who want to try to make an authentic old time root beer from roots. However, it is hard to find all the roots, barks, and spices needed to make root beer, which is why people buy concentrate.

Bubbly Beverages

The next step in the evolution of Americas’ most indigenous modern drink, root beer, was that somebody had to figure out a way to carbonate it without fermenting it with yeast. The history in that branch of the root beer family tree leads us back along a different route, to the belief that soaking in naturally bubbly mineral springs could help to heal or cure illnesses. The word bath comes from a place in England called Bath, which had just such a type of spring. Once I was in western Turkey on vacation, and “took the cure” in the springs at Pamukkale. The water was warm, I felt buoyant, and bubbles formed on my skin. It was like swimming in a big pool of warm seltzer water!

In olden times this kind of water was considered very healthful, and even if you couldn’t sit and soak in it, perhaps you could drink it. A market for bottled bubbly spring water developed, and people who couldn’t travel to “take the cure” bought the bottled water to drink. It was a very rare kind of water, and of course very expensive. Then in 1767 Dr. Joseph Priestley in England invented a way to create carbonated water artificially. This artificially produced mineral water was also considered healthful, and as new inventors fine-tuned the production process, bottled carbonated water gained wider distribution and popularity. It didn’t take long for people to begin to flavor the bottled bubbly water, similar to our flavored carbonated waters of today. This was the birth of the soda industry, as we know it.

The Hires Formula For Success

Now a third branch in the root beer family tree involves a man named Charles Hires, a pharmacist and brilliant entrepreneur living in Philadelphia. Many people say that Charles Hires invented root beer, but as you can see, the colonists had been making root beer for 200 years before Charles Hires was born. In fact, there were some commercial root beer brewers such as Caleb Smith, in Flushing, New York, as far back as the 1850’s, who produced a fermented draft root beer.

However, Mr. Hires was the first to commercially produce root beer in bottles, and he was a great promoter as well. The legend says that on his honeymoon, visiting his home state of New Jersey, Charles and his bride stayed at a guest farm where the landlady served them her homemade herb tea. Charles either got the recipe from her, or secured a packet of the herb tea mix, and then went back to Philadelphia to figure out the recipe. Once he put together a recipe to his satisfaction, he began to sell the herb-mix packets at his pharmacy. Being the astute businessman that he was, he sold boxes of the packets to other pharmacies to sell as “Hires’ Herb Tea”, and he also sold it at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. The directions said to boil the ingredients, strain them, and add sugar to the liquid, then add yeast and ferment. Hires Herb Tea was an instant hit with the housewives because they didn’t have to go collect the roots, barks, and berries anymore. The root beer that Charles’ “tea” produced was very similar to the root beer my family made from concentrate when I was a kid.

The Birth of Commercially Bottled Root Beer

By this time, being in the health business, many pharmacies had soda fountains to dispense the healthful carbonated water, and Charles and other pharmacists began to add “Hires’ Herb Tea” to the carbonated water, which changed the flavor and removed the fermentation step of the process. But, you still had to boil and strain the ingredients before they could be added to the sweetened carbonated water. Therefore Charles introduced a new and improved liquid version that could be fermented at home once water and yeast were added, or it could be added directly to sweetened carbonated water. This liquid extract was first advertised in an 1884 issue of Harper’s Weekly. Mr. Hires was a good promoter and gave away lots of samples for people to try. At the time the anti-alcohol temperance movement was mounting, and housewives loved the convenience of the new liquid extract.

The next logical step for a businessman like Charles Hires was to bottle finished root beer, and make people’s lives easier by removing the need to do any work to produce root beer at home. In 1893, the Crystal Bottling Company began bottling Hires Root Beer and distributing it to local retailers. Of course being a pharmacist, Charles promoted his root beer as being good for you. With it’s slightly bitter herbal character, every root beer, no matter which recipe (and they’re all a little different) has a slightly medicinal flavor. That’s part of what makes root beer taste so old fashioned!

Modern Root Beer Flavors

There’s one more flavor difference between the original root beers and modern root beers, and that is sassafras. Sassafras contains safrole, which the FDA has determined is a carcinogen. Therefore sassafras oil has been banned since 1960, and sassafras bark since 1976. If the food chemists hadn’t been able to come up with a comparable artificial sassafras flavoring in the 1960’s, root beer might have died out, because sassafras was the main seasoning ingredient in all root beers. Supposedly tobacco is a tame carcinogen compared with toxic safrole. Root beer purists claim that the flavor of artificial sassafras is not the same as the original, and they complain that many modern root beers rely too heavily on wintergreen, anise, cloves, lemon oil and orange oil. I say it doesn’t matter as long as the root beer tastes good!

The Bulldog Difference

When you taste a root beer, you will immediately say, “Yes, it’s root beer.” However, side-by-side, root beers are remarkably different, more different than Coke® and Pepsi® are from each other. Some root beers have an herbal medicinal bite, some are sweet, some are bitter, and some are highly carbonated and make you burp.

Our Bulldog Root Beer® is softly carbonated so that you can smell the delicate real vanilla and gentle honey aromas. Our root beer Recipe Development Team spent two years, slaving over nine test batches, until we developed the exact flavor that we thought was the best. We use real cane sugar to give it that rich deep old-fashioned flavor. Granulated cane sugar costs a lot more than the heavily refined high-fructose corn syrup that the big root beer producers use, but we think it’s worth every penny. And we think you’ll agree!

Take the Bulldog Root Beer challenge, and compare Bulldog with your regular root beer brand. Or just pick up a 6-pack and enjoy it cold, straight from the bottle if you prefer.

Now that you know all about root beer, aren’t you thirsty for a cold one right now?
Then grab a Bulldog Root Beer® and Unleash The Taste®

Both Sight and Scent: Agastaches Have It All!

With a scent that will make you come back for more, plus the bright happy colors, a non-fussy agastache plant is a definite plus for every garden!

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Have you ever planted a garden for more than just visual appeal? Have you ever walked through a yard and suddenly found yourself stopped in your tracks by a luscious scent? How about both? Both beauty AND scent? And easy to care for? And seemingly in all colors? Not to mention being bee and hummingbird magnets? I must be out of my mind! Actually, no, I’m just crazy about agastaches.
Agastache (pronounced aeg-uh-STACK-ee) is a genus with species that are native to Asia and North America. They’re readily available from most online nurseries, although you might be lucky enough to find them in your own local nurseries. They range in color from white to yellow to pink to pastel pinks and oranges to fiery oranges and reds, and even blue (not a true blue like delphiniums & irises, but pretty close). They grow in some of the more unforgiving desert environments, such as hot dry deserts, but that doesn’t mean you have to live in Death Valley to grow these. There are agastaches that are more than happy to live in moister soils, soaking up the water as it’s provided, as long as they don’t have wet feet and are grown in full sun.


Agastaches can get quite big for a herbaceous plant. Some of mine get to be approximately 4 feet around and 4 feet tall. They bloom for months at a time, usually starting in the middle of summer and lasting all the way through the early frost season. My frost season usually arrives much sooner than in other parts of the country, but I can count on agastaches blooming from June until early October. They also can be almost evergreen at the base, and some of them are the first things to send up leaves in early spring. They send up a spike full of arrowhead-shaped leaves, and the top 3-12″ (depending on the cultivar) will carry the flowers. The flowers are usually tubular in shape and individual, but some are more like catkins than others.



Now that I’ve talked about some of the basics of agastaches, I can move on to my favorite feature: the scent. There are many varieties of agastaches, but most of them share one common feature: They smell like root beer. Yes, they honestly smell like a mug of warm root beer. It’s the plant, not the flowers, that smells, although even the seeds and the dead winter-kill stems smell like root beer. You can make a tea out of the leaves, but I’ve never tried it, so I don’t know whether it would taste like root beer. I know that some varieties are edible, but please be very cautious and contact your local ag center or poison control center before trying to nibble on a strange plant. Walking past a row of agastaches can result in your clothes smelling like root beer, your shoes, everything! You can definitely smell them from a good distance away, and since it’s such a unique smell, that makes it an even more attractive plant.
If you’re looking for a beautiful, hardy, scented plant that attracts hummingbirds and bees, readily grows from seed, and tolerates poor soil and high temperatures, then perhaps an agastache, or two or three, may be what you need.
(all pictures are of plants I have grown in my own yard that have survived a minimum of two winters in zone 5)

Hoja Santa Potential Invasive Plant

This was difficult to identify since it did not have any flowers. But one of the Master Gardener volunteers earned her title today by looking for it on-line. One very distinctive characteristic was the uneven shape of the leaf at the base. It also helped when you told us it has a thin finger-like white flower. Once the volunteer discovered a possible choice with a photo (Hoja Santa), you agreed she identified it correctly.

Hoja Santa or Root beer plant, Piper auritum, may emit a scent like root beer or anise – depending on who is smelling the crushed leaf. The leaves are chopped or minced and added to cooking or used as wraps for meat stuffing. It can reach heights up to 6 feet, it is considered a large shrub.

Its origin is Mexico through Columbia and does not have any preference to soil type. It can reproduce from rhizomes and spreads readily through the root systems. It does grow well in our area, prefers shade but can tolerate full sun and requires little water. In fact, it grows a little too well. We are concerned this plant will become another unwanted plant pest. Please be on the lookout for it. In the UF/IFAS Assessment of Non-native plants in natural areas, Piper auritum has received a high score indicating it has a good potential for being an invasive plant. We should start looking for this plant and removing it immediately. I am going to encourage you to become good stewards of the land by not transferring plants from other regions – especially tropical areas. Thank you so much.

by Rebecca Jordi

Posted: March 11, 2019

Category: Horticulture

Tags: Hoja Santa; Root beer plant, invasive plant

Growing A Root Beer Plant: Information About Root Beer Plants

If you like to grow unusual and interesting plants, or if you just like to learn about them, you may be reading this to learn about root beer plants (Piper auritum). If you’re wondering how is a root beer plant used, the answer is found below. A root beer plant growing in the garden provides an interesting fragrance and has a multitude of uses in the kitchen.

A root beer plant, also known as Hoja Santa, holy leaf or Mexican pepperleaf, growing in the garden provides the aroma of root beer, and large, furry leaves in which to wrap foods and give them a hint of root beer flavor. An evergreen shrub or small tree in USDA zones 10 and 11, root beer plants are herbaceous perennials in USDA zones 8 and 9.

Flowers of the root beer plant are not showy and sometimes not even noticeable. Root beer plants are primarily used as culinary ingredients, or in some areas, medicinal.

How Is a Root Beer Plant Used?

Native to Mexico, this plant has a diversity of uses. Leaves of the root beer plant are steamed and used as wraps in many native dishes. The leaves may also be chopped for use in cooking or salads.

Info about root beer plants says they are also used medicinally as an aid to digestion and to calm colicky babies. The leaves are soaked in alcohol and used on women’s breasts to increase milk production. Other info says it is used for bronchitis and asthma.

However, in the United States, the FDA banned its commercial use as root beer flavoring in the 1960’s, as it contains the oil safrole, which is known to be carcinogenic in animals.

Keeping this fact in mind, you may wish to grow it for the scent in the garden and not for culinary use. Some sources consider it to be toxic; other information disagrees.

Caring for root beer plants is simple when the plant is grown in a warm area. Plant it in full sun to part shade, feed and water occasionally.

Caring for root beer plants can be neglected without the loss of the plant, but the most attractive foliage results from proper care. The plant won’t survive in freezing temperatures.

Now that you’ve learned about root beer plants, also called the Mexican pepperleaf, you may grow them in a scented garden for the wonderful fragrance.

Seed Availability

Seeds are now available at our seed store.

Description

Shrubby perennial to 6+ft. This species is easily identified by its huge leaves which can grow over a foot long in older specimens. Plants will grow out from roots so it can spread in ideal conditions. Flowers are long, skinny, white, and fuzzy looking. They may be borne in season. The plant doesn’t usually form many fruits outside of its native range.

Hardiness

Main foliage is hardy to about 32F, but will die back in colder areas and re-grow from roots. The root system is probably hardy to 15-20F.

Growing Environment

Grows best in part-shade or full-shade. Needs consistent and regular watering. Little other care is necessary.

Propagation

By root division or separation of plantlets as they grow up from the soil.

Uses

The leaves are chopped and used for flavoring, as well as used whole, as wrappings for meats, tamales, etc.

Native Range

From Mexico through Colombia.

Additional Pictures

Related Species

Piperaceae
Piper auritum
Root Beer Plant
Piper betle
Betel Leaf
Piper nigrum
Pepper

Piper Auritum (Rootbeer Plant / False Kava) – Live Plant – FREE SHIPPING

Piper Auritum is a perennial plant in the pepper family. It is almost identical to kava kava, and the two are often mistaken for one another. For that reason, the plat is sometimes called False Kava. Piper Auritum has a spicy anise-like or Root Beer scent, for which it is also sometimes called Root Beer Plant. The essential oil of piper auritum leaves contains high levels of safrole, which is the same essential oil that give sassafras its root beer scent. Piper auritum leaves can handle temps down to about freezing, and the roots can survive even cooler temperatures. It is extremely easy to care for as long as it is well-watered. It prefers partial to full shade and can be grown indoors. WE HAVE A LIMITED SUPPLY OF HALF GALLON AND LARGER SIZE PLANTS AT THIS TIME. PLANTS MAY BE SHIPPED WITHOUT A POT TO ACCOMMODATE SHIPPING IN A FLAT RATE BOX. SHIPPING INCLUDED IN THE PRICE.

We ship live plants on Mondays and Tuesdays only, so please allow at least 1 week for shipping. SORRY, NO INTERNATIONAL SHIPPING ON LIVE PLANTS.

**Buyer is responsible for frozen plants. USPS is heated, so the plant will be fine unless you leave it at your door too long. But if you are in a cold area and cannot get the plant right away, signature confirmation can be added to the shipping cost. They will hold the plant until you pick it up.

A wrapper for snapper: cooking with hoja santa, Mexican root beer plant

Now that the weather has warmed up, our hoja santa leaves have grown about 8 inches across, big enough to use as wrappers. We’ve been psyched to try the plant, because this stuff actually smells—and tastes—like root beer! (Root beer plant is another name for Piper auritum.)

Heart-shaped hoja santa in a shady spot in the Sunset test garden

Cooks in southern Mexico wrap hoja santa around fish and tamales to give the food an herbaceous, anise- and root beer-like flavor. They also use the leaves in mole verde and soups.

Wanting something easy, I went for the wrappers and just folded the leaves around snapper with a few seasonings. Instead of steaming the packets—the classic technique—I popped them on the grill. Works beautifully, and they come off the grill with a big waft of that anisey, root-beer aroma.

For more on growing hoja santa and to watch a short video with Mexico’s chef Federico López on all sorts of Mexican cooking greens, see below.

Grilled snapper wrapped in hoja santa

SERVES 2 to 4

4 fillets (1 lb.) Pacific snapper

About 1 1/2 tbsp. olive oil

1 large orange wedge

Kosher salt

Minced red or green serrano chile (optional)

4 large fresh hoja santa leaves, stems trimmed

1. Heat grill to medium (about 375°). Put the snapper in a wide bowl and coat it in about 1 tbsp. olive oil. Squeeze a little orange juice on top, then season to taste with salt and a little chile.

2. Lay the hoja santa leaves flat. Cut and stack each fish fillet as needed to fit at the base of a leaf, leaving enough leaf open to enclose the fish. Fold the sides of the leaves over the fish, then roll to enclose. Secure ends of leaves with toothpicks. Brush outsides with more oil.

3. Grill, turning once, until the fish is just opaque in the center, 6 to 8 minutes.

Growing hoja santa

You can order hoja santa from Companion Plants. Johanna Silver, our test garden coordinator, recommends watering the plant every few days and growing it in filtered sunlight.

Mexican greens with chef Federico López

I first learned about hoja santa at Food & Wine’s Food of Mexico festival in Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo this spring when Federico López, one of Mexico’s top chefs, did a demo on cooking with quelites, or Mexican greens. Click below to hear what he has to say. If you hear crashing surf and seagulls in the background, it’s because we were just a few yards from the Pacific ocean!

Hoja Santa

What is Hoja Santa?

The dinner plate-sized, heart-shaped leaves of this tall Central American herb are not yet available in the produce sections of supermarkets across the country, but this may well change as Americans continue to embrace ethnic cuisines and seasonings of all kinds.

Hoja santa has to be sold as a fresh herb because the leaves are not used dried. It is easy to cook with, and its pleasant anise flavor with herbal, flinty overtones is easy to like. The aroma carries enough of a whiff of black pepper to remind you that the two seasonings are closely related, belonging to the same genus. The name given to the plant in the Southern United States says it all: Root Beer Plant. Crush one of the velvety, heart-shaped leaves in your hand, and you’ll understand – root beer.

Hoja santa grows well in southern and eastern Mexico and in the warmest states of the United States. This attractive plant holds its large leaves horizontally around one or more thick central stalks. The leaves are easily six inches-often a foot-across, bright green on top and paler underneath.

The complex flavor of hoja santa is not so easily described; it has been compared to eucalyptus, licorice, sassafras, anise, nutmeg and black pepper. The flavor is stronger in the young stems and veins.

Cooking with Hoja Santa

It is often used in Mexican cuisine for tamales, the fish or meat wrapped in fragrant leaves for cooking, and as an essential ingredient in Mole Verde, the green sauce originated in the Oaxaca region of Mexico. It is also chopped to flavor soups and eggs. In Central Mexico, it is used to flavor chocolate drinks.

While typically used fresh, it is also used in dried form, although drying removes much of the flavor. American cheesemaker Paula Lambert uses it for “Hoja santa cheese”, the goat’s milk cheese wrapped with the hoja santa leaves and impregnated with its flavor. Hoja santa leaves are usually used as wrappers for steamed or baked fish, shrimp, chicken, or cheese. Or they may serve as an inner wrapper for tamales. Unlike banana leaves or corn husks, these leafy wrappers are eaten right along with the filling.

To make a wrapper, rinse each leaf well, lay it on a board and slice along the central vein on both sides, cutting the heart shape into two lobes. Discard the tough central vein and use the two large pieces as wrappers.

You can also make a chiffonade of them or use them as a seasoning. Because they are tough, hoja santa leaves are not good in salads. They need to be cooked, but the good news is, they keep their flavor and remain green when heated. They are used in Mexico to season a mole for pork and are sometimes added to posole verde. For these purposes, you may substitute the feathery green leaves of fennel for hoja santa, if necessary, using about one-half cup fennel leaves for each hoja santa leaf called for in the recipe.

With a blender, it is possible to make a hoja santa sauce, good with fish or chicken. Tear up a few leaves into largish pieces, and pack them loosely into a measuring cup. As you tear, you may find a few more tough veins to discard. Put one cup of leaves and one-third cup chicken broth into the blender and puree as smooth as possible. Season with salt and pepper, and with garlic, onions, green chiles, or whatever suits your mood. Now fry the sauce, as they do in Mexican cooking: pour into a skillet with a small amount of oil and bring to a boil, stirring frequently. Turn down the heat immediately, simmer for about ten minutes and serve. This very green sauce looks wonderful with an accent of finely shredded carrots.

The leaves can be cut into strips and fried crisp, as with fried parsley. Fry them in hot oil for two minutes or so, until they turn dark green and curl up. Drain on a paper towel, and add a pinch of salt. Use as a garnish for any entree, especially fish, or with vegetables such as squash.

Hoja santa tastes so good with fish that in parts of Panama the leaves are fed to live, stocked fish, which then acquire the flavor of the herb.

Substitutes for Hoja Santa

Unsprayed avocado leaves, Swiss chard or chopped fennel (if recipe calls for leaves to be chopped). Banana leaves can be used as a food wrapper and corn husks for wrapping tamales.

Heath Benefits of Hoja Santa

According to Aztec use as: stimulant, analgesic, and stomachic. It was said to be used by the Aztecs for asthma, bronchitis, laryngitis, and apnia. Other sources in Spanish reveal that these properties are still considered valid today and that it is used topically for skin irritations as well as for placing the alcohol-soaked leaves on the breasts of lactating women to increase milk-production.

As an infusion, it is drunk to stimulate digestion and to calm colic. It is said to have diuretic and anesthetic properties as well. And a homeopathic tincture of hoja santa is often employed for bronchial infections and asthma. In the United States, the FDA has been less kind. Because, like sassafras, it contains the essential oil safrole, which is known to be carcinogenic in animals, some sources consider it to be toxic.As an ingredient, safrole was banned in the 1960s and the making of root beer extract now uses artificial flavorings. However, Wikipedia refers to an article that states “toxicological studies show that humans do not process safrole into its carcinogenic metabolite.” Dangerous or not, hoja santa is used extensively in the cooking of Mexico, particularly in salsas, stews, and tamales.

Other Names

English: eared pepper, anise piper, root beer plant
Spanish: hoja santa, anisillo, sabalero, hoja de la estrella, hoja de anis, allacuyo, yerba santa
Aztec: tlanapaquelite
Other: Hawaiian sakau, false sakau, false kava (Pohnpei)

Scientific Name

Piper auritum

50 seeds of Piper auritum, Hoja Santa

Piper auritum, Hoja Santa seeds

Piper auritum belongs to the family of the Piperaceae, the peppers. The plant is also known as Mexican Pepperleaf and Eared pepper. P. auritum is native to Mexico and Central America.
The Mexican Pepperleaf grows as an evergreen shrub reaching a height of about 5 m. It is first herbaceous and lignifies the older the plant gets.
The leaves are simple and heart shaped. They get 30 cm long and have an aromatic taste resembling anise and pepper. The young leaves have a stronger aroma than the older ones. The leaves of the Mexican Pepperleaf are slightly pubescent at the bottom side. They look a bit like ears and therefore the Mexican pepperleave got its nickname eared pepper. The leaves alternate at the shoot.
The leaves of P. auritum are a popular spice in Mexico. They are used dried or fresh. The “mole verde” a green sauce is made up mainly of pureed leaves of the eared pepper. They can be also used as incense and are used in medicine against diarrhea and sickness. P. auritum contains like most pepper species Safrol. Safrol is said to be toxic for the liver. This was proved experiments with rats. But if one consumes the Mexican leaves in normal amounts it should be uncritical.
The small whitish creamy flowers stand in inflorescences. Those spikes can get up to 30 cm long.
The fruits are very small and are eaten by bats that distribute the seeds in that way. The fruits of Piper auritum are not eaten like those of Piper nigrum.
It is also known as root beer plant, because it smells like Sassafras. The roots of Sassafras are used to produce root beer.

Cultivation of Piper auritum from seeds:

The seeds of Piper auritum should be only pressed slightly on the substrate. They need light to germinate. The substrate should be kept moist at a temperature of about 25°C. Then germination occurs quite fast. P. auritum is well suited to be kept in a container. It is not winter hardy and should be placed inside during the cold season. If the temperature in the house is too deep it can happen that the evergreen plant loses its leaves. But they grow again in the next spring. P. auritum is quite robust.

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