Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Hoja santa, Acuyo (Piper auritum)

Piper auritum is a tropical herb that is variously known as hoja santa, acuyo, pepperleaf , Vera cruz pepper, false kava and root beer plant.
This species is very fast-growing to a height of 12 feet or more with stout upright stems and individual leaves that often grow more than a foot across. The leaf surface has a velvety texture.
It is these large leaves that are used to wrap tamales or meats before cooking, giving a distinctive flavor to the food inside. The leaves are also an essential ingredient in mole verde, and are chopped in soups and egg dishes. They even add a delightful flavor to tea.
The flavor is a complex blend of sassafras, anise and black pepper. Indeed, Piper auritum is in the same genus as black pepper (Piper nigrum). Much of the flavor comes from the naturally-occurring essential oil safrole, which has been shown to be a carcinogen in animal studies. Subsequent studies have shown that humans metabolize the safrole differently and it does not break down into a carcinogenic metabolite, so it's safe for humans to eat.
In Panama the leaves are fed to fish that are later cooked and eaten. The flesh of the fish takes on the flavor of the leaves it has eaten.
Plants spread by underground runners and a single plant can quickly become a large clump capable of providing all the acuyo you can eat. Here you can see how the original plant sends up a few clustered stems, then starts spreading farther away.
The thick stems are covered with prominent lenticels and are noticeably swollen at the nodes.
New growth sports numerous spadix-type flower spikes which look something like white rat tails.
Each spadix emerges opposite the leaf along the stem. It starts out pendulous, but elongates and becomes erect as it matures, eventually achieving 8-9 inches in length.
Piper auritum is native to tropical America from northern South America to Mexico. The leaves will be damaged by frost, but the root system will survive through a hard freeze and the plant is reportedly root hardy through USDA Zone 8.
It will grow in full sun or full shade, but with full sun in high summer heat, the leaves droop during the afternoon hours.


Linda said...

Lovely series of photos.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for the information. I received a couple plants from my mother in law 13 years ago, and never knew what they were called!

Grower Jim said...

Anonymous, have you been eating it all this time or just enjoying its ornamental qualities?

Stellamarina said...

A very bautiful and healthy looking plant but they can quickly go wild and those roots can spread like crazy and can be hard to get rid of. Use caution in growing this one.

Grower Jim said...

Stellamarina, I recommend planting it in containers if you have limited growing space.

Unknown said...

I want to buy seeds or an Hojas Santa plant. We had some of this plants leaves cut up in refried beans in Oaxaca, MX years ago and loved the taste. Have any for sale or know where I can get some?

Grower Jim said...

Bonnie, this species doesn't produce viable seed. I sell the plants at the local farmers market. Check with the markets in your area to see if anyone is growing it there.