Have you ever been to a Japanese restaurant that serves Shiso leaves in a meal? Ever wonder what these leaves are and where they came from? You are not alone, there are many people in America that have not heard of these leaves however have eaten them a few times. Shiso is a common name given in North America to Perilla leaves. Perilla is an annual herb that is a member of the mint family.
Originally originating from India and East Asia, Perilla has been also known as Shiso, Beefsteak plant, Purple mint, Ji Soo, Rattlesnake Weed, Chinese basil, or even Shilam. Although it is a genus of the Mint family, it is not a mint. In the 1800’s, Asian immigrants hung on to this favorite plant and brought it to America. Since it flourishes in light to medium moist well-drained and rich soil, located in a sunny location, it can be found in many pastures and along roadsides. This should not turn a gardener away from this plant though since butterflies love this plant and it is very attractive. In addition, it is edible and tastes a little like mint however with a spicy flavor. Some people refer to it as Japanese parsley since it only has hints of flavor instead of an overpowering taste. The taste is shocking though since while growing the plant, it has a wonderful mint scent!
When mature, this herb can grow to almost four feet in height. The branching stems are slightly square and are reddish to dark purple in color. The leaves can reach to almost six inches when mature and have distinctive serrated edges. They are slightly oval in appearance. The tips sometimes are seen curly. They are dark green with a hint of dark red to purple coloring, in addition to the hair that is on both sides. Some people have stated that the leaves are so big and so dark red that it reminds them of a slice of raw beef therefore some refer to the name beefsteak plant. In July to October, flowering spike grow in between the leaves and can grow to almost 10 inches in height. The numerous pink to lavender flowers will grow to make ovals on the flowering spikes. Soon after the plant has bloomed, seeds will form in pods. When you shake the plant, the seeds will move around in the pods and sound like a rattlesnake tail, hence the name above. If these seeds fall to the ground though, it will be hard to control the plant in a garden. They are very invasive!
Since the leaves and flowers can be eaten at any time, this plant has been known throughout history as a food gift from the gods in Asia. Before harvesting this plant each year, folklore states that the plant would be placed in a ceremony since it was so sacred. At that time it was used as food and medicine, therefore the importance of the plant existence was important. Hence, this sacred plant given from the gods was not to be stepped on by anyone. In fact, if stepped on, the person would be sentenced to a death by trampling of the people in that region. This is something that I have heard, however I am not sure on the truth behind the belief.
Today, this plant can be used in adding flavor to fish, rice, vegetables and soups. The seeds can be ground and made into cooking oil and also one of the main ingredients in sarsaparilla. In addition, many Asian countries use it as a medicine that helps asthma, antimicrobial, antiseptic, antispasmodic, diaphoretic, expectorant, pectoral, stomachic and as a tonic. If steeped in hot water for tea, it can be a good treatment of asthma, colds, cough afflictions, nausea, cramps, constipation, food poisoning and aid against other allergic reactions.
Although it is not commonly used in North America, I love to use this plant in my garden since it brings in the butterflies. In addition, I love adding it to the Japanese dishes that I make at home, including fish, tempura and other entrees. If looking for a traditional Japanese plant, look into this gorgeous flowering spike herb!