Gardening in the Southwest has introduced me to several herbs unknown in other parts of the country. One of my favorite – almost flamboyant – finds is hoja santa, a tender perennial import from Central America and parts of Mexico.
Hoja santa has large heart-shaped leaves about 10 inches long with one lobe of the heart larger than the other. The leaves grow near the top of 2-inch thick jointed stalks that remind me of bamboo. The stems can be cut down to ground level and dried for crafting. Stalks that are tall enough can be made into walking sticks for children.
The roots of hoja santa are fairly shallow and grow laterally to spawn new stalks as much as six feet away. Although it has a tendency to spring up in unexpected places, its shallow root system makes it relatively easy to dig up. During the summer fleshy spikes with very tiny white flowers appear near the top of the plant.
Where to Plant
Plant hoja santa where it will get ample moisture and plenty of room to spread out. This tender perennial grows in an open cluster 3 to 6 feet high. Because the leaves overlap efficiently very little sunlight reaches the ground beneath. This discourages other plants from sharing the spot.
Hoja santa is not hardy above Zone 8. At the first frost, the leaves and stalks will wither but the roots will remain alive through the winter. In my Zone 7/8 garden, hoja santa has reliably returned from the roots for more than six years. If you live in an area with extended freezing temperatures, try growing hoja santa in a large container you can bring in for the winter.
In the Kitchen
Hoja santa’s botanical name (Piper auritum) tells us it is a cousin to black pepper (Piper nigrum), a Southeast Asian vine that gives us the ground pepper on the dinner table. This flavor kinship is evident when you munch on a leaf of hoja santa. Besides the sharp peppery undertones, you may detect another familiar flavor. Hoja santa is also known in the U.S. as “the root beer plant” for its similarity to the flavor of that all-American beverage.
Fresh hoja santa leaves have several uses in the Mexican kitchen. The leaves are large enough to be a wrap for foods, just as a tortilla would be used but with a spicy flavor. In the Veracruz area cooks wrap fish in the leaves before roasting and served with a spicy tomato sauce. The green leaves can be used to wrap fresh goat cheese for aging.
But the most important culinary use is in mole verde, a thick green sauce somewhere between salsa and pesto. The key ingredients are fresh leaves from epazote (Dysphania ambrosioides), hoja santa, and parsley. Other seasonings such as cumin or chili pepper may be added, depending on the cook’s preference. The resulting sauce is used to season chicken or pork.
Want something fun to grow and enjoy? This year add a little spice from south of the border to your shade garden with hoja santa.