Perilla, ggaennip, shiso: By any name, a fine addition to garden

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It’s telling that with such limited ground -- not even 20 square feet -- the gardeners at the Korean Resource Center have dedicated a majority of their space to the perilla plant, a member of the mint family known as ggaennip in Korea and shiso in Japan.

Even though it’s the end of the year, the perilla at the center in Koreatown is still hanging on, no doubt helped by the protection offered by courtyard walls. In summer, a group of local high school students tried gardening there, planting a ‘pizza garden’ -- basil, tomato and garlic -- in raised beds. When they ran into trouble, they asked for advice from Yong-hak Cho, a senior volunteer for the center’s community health program. Besides helping other seniors navigate the world of healthcare, Cho is the center’s garden master, picking off bugs and watering when the kids forgot.

When he was living in Seoul and working for Samsung 20 years ago, Cho had a small suburban plot he gardened. ‘Every weekend with my family and friends we would go there,’ he said.

The perilla, or wild sesame leaf, that he’s tending here is a little bit of home. Despite the common name, the plant has no relation to the sesame seed found on your bagel. In Japan, it’s used in norimaki sushi rolls, in which the mint bouquet is paired with plum. It’s also found in pizzas, no-oil salad dressings, and even as a Pepsi flavor. The larger and hardier Korean variety that Cho grows is marinated, eaten raw in salads and used as a wrap for Korean barbeque.


‘Sesame leaf is a side dish,’ Cho said. ‘It’s never cooked. It’s like kimchi. You marinate it with soy sauce, sugar, red pepper. Stack it with marinade between the leaves and leave it for a month, or more, and it’s better.” Jani Kim, a coordinator at the Korean Resource Center, said every family has its own version of the marinade. She said her mother stocks up when the leaves go on sale, resulting in marathon marinade sessions. Cho and the seniors at the center don’t have to wait for sales, thanks to their little garden.

Nurseries and some Asian markets will have shoots available for transplanting starting in March, but gardeners also can start their own plants from seed next month. Kitazawa Seed Co. has Japanese and Korean varieties. Soak seeds overnight before scattering them atop potting soil in a container. They don’t need to be covered, but they must be kept moist (not soaked), so keep a mister handy for regular spraying until spouts appear. Transplant seedlings into the ground after six to eight weeks. Perilla grows like basil, thriving in sun or part shade, in well-drained soil. Best of all: The plant reseeds itself.

The high school kids don’t know how to grow and harvest the perilla, Cho said. ‘They have to wait a few months for it to grow from the seeds. They will understand then.’

The plant serves as something of a bridge between generations.

“A lot of the kids are first-generation and understand Korean but cannot speak. And the elders are often not fluent in English,’ Kim said, adding that the garden ‘is a great way to get the two spectrums of immigrants together.’

-- Jeff Spurrier

The Global Garden, a look at multicultural L.A. through its garden plantings, appears here on Tuesdays. For an easy way to follow future installments, bookmark this blog or join our Facebook page for gardening in the West.

Perilla leaves, freshly harvested.

The leaf in sunlight.


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