Wednesday, July 10, 2013
Hoja santa, Acuyo (Piper auritum)
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.
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.
It will grow in full sun or full shade, but with full sun in high summer heat, the leaves droop during the afternoon hours.