The Global Garden: A giant herb called hoja santa
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During my visits to community gardens in the last year, I kept running into gardeners from southern Mexico and Guatemala cultivating the same plant: hoja santa, or ‘sacred leaf.’ I had seen it growing in friends’ yards in San Miguel de Allende in central Mexico but had no idea it could be so easily cultivated in California. Exploring what it is and how it’s grown seemed like a good way start to L.A. at Home’s new series, the Global Garden, a look at the edible and ornamental plants grown across this multicultural city.
At Proyecto Jardín Community Garden in Boyle Heights, a grove of hoja santa is harvested regularly, but even with this constant pruning, the perennial has taken over one section of the garden.
“I thought it was a delicate little herb,” said Irene Peña, the garden’s manager. “It’s not!”
Technically an herb, hoja santa looks more like a tree, quickly growing to 6 feet tall, its edible heart-shaped leaves as big as dinner plates. The common name in English is “root beer plant” because of its similarity in flavor to the bark of the sassafras tree, once the primary flavoring of root beer. Food writer Victoria Challancin (also a neighbor of mine in San Miguel de Allende, where I live part time), says the back story to the herb’s Spanish name is that the Virgin Mary wanted to dry the diapers of the baby Jesus, so she put them on top of an hoja santa plant that ‘would not only serve as a clothesline, but also impart a very pleasant aroma.’
In Mexico hoja santa is added to stews, mole sauces and chocolate drinks. It’s used as an edible wrapping for tamales or eggs and cheese, quickly sautéed in a dry skillet. Under heat, the leaf’s velvety texture softens but retains a peppery anise flavor. Some cooks dip it in hot water briefly to make it more malleable. Diana Kennedy, the Mexican cooking authority, suggested trimming the rubbery main rib. The plant does come with a warning. Hoja santa, botanical name Piper auritum, is high in safrole, an essential oil that is used in the manufacture of the drug Ecstasy. One encyclopedia of herbs does not recommend using the plant for food, but the plant has been eaten for centuries from Mexico to Venezuela. It is legal to grow and has no mood-altering effects. You even can buy the dried leaves at Wal-Mart in the food section.
Despite its origins in southern Mexico, hoja santa thrives in Southern California if it is planted in porous soil, given a shady location and kept well watered. The leaves droop when the plant gets dry. Properly tended, it sends out runners and can take over a space quickly. In the summer, plants send out skinny white flowers; in the spring, transplantable shoots emerge as a pair of small leaves just above the soil. Hoja santa does well in containers but can be destroyed by frost.
I have yet to find a local nursery that sells hoja santa, but you can buy transplants from the Caracol marketplace at the Boyle Heights community supported agriculture program of Proyecto Jardin. Gardeners at the Stanford Avalon Community Garden also grow it in abundance.
-- Jeff Spurrier
The Global Garden will appear here every Tuesday. Suggestions? Send them to us at email@example.com.
Hoja santa at Proyecto Jardín in Los Angeles.
Irene Peña standing in front of hoja santa at Proyecto Jardín.
Leaf in detail.