by Barbara Porsch—Herb Enthusiast
Hoja Santa, Piper auritum, is a fun herb to grow out here if you don’t mind a little pampering during winter. It doesn’t like cold but does well in a warmer climate. More about that later on. Hoja Santa (pronounced O HO Santa) is a semi woody plant that branches from the ground resulting in an umbrella shaped plant. It has large, velvety, heart-shaped leaves that are often 10 inches or more in width with weird looking pencil-thin white blossoms in the summer. In warmer climates it can spread much like bamboo and has naturalized on the River Walk in San Antonio. After pampering one in a big pot for several years, I decided to take it to my daughter in the Houston area. We planted it in a bed restricted by the pool deck, but later hoped the neighbor liked it as pictured here.
It is also called “root beer plant” because when rubbing the leaves, you get a distinct root beer flavor and is popular in Guatemalan and Mexican food. It is used to wrap meats, chicken or fish to steam. I have wrapped fish and vegetables in a leaf, burrito style, and steamed it. Howard Garrett’s “Herbs for Texas” suggests rolling up beef or chicken with peppers, onion and garlic enchilada style. Pour a little wine over it and bake for about an hour. Some Oaxacan recipes cook chicken layered with torn leaves and a spicy mole sauce.
Hoja Santa appreciates rich, well-drained soil and full sun except here where it would appreciate shade in the afternoon. It is not xeric, but it is a fun plant to have and experiment with. A big pot would be beautiful by a pool or patio. It is not commonly available; but if you see it, you might want to try it. And the name is fun to say.