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The root beer plant or hoja santa, in Spanish, is an aromatic herb used in Mexican cuisine and herbal medicine. It’s scientific name is Piper auritum and it smells a bit like fennel or root beer. It is found in tropical areas throughout Mexico and Central America. In Spanish, hoja santa means “holy leaf” or “sacred leaf.” Its medicinal uses are many, dating back to the time of the Aztecs.
In Oaxaca, hoja santa is an essential ingredient in mole amarillo and mole verde. In Veracruz and Chiapas, the large heart-shaped leaves often wrap seafood, especially fish and shrimp, or tamales for steaming. Artisan cheese can be found wrapped in leaves of this plant to impart its aroma during the aging process, in many areas.
The Root Beer plant is often found as an understory plant in tropical Mexico. So, it grows in both full sun and in shade. Once established it is fairly drought tolerant, but it is usually found where rainfall is a regular event in summer. If grown in full sun, it requires a bit more irrigation in the summer than plants native to our area.
This shrub will reach heights of 8 to 10 feet in its native, tropical environment, but, here in the Valley, a height of 5 to 6 feet is common. The plant tends to get a bit leggy if left without trimming, so, like many herbs, it will benefit if the leaves are regularly taken.
It is an aggressive plant and will pop up in surrounding areas, so containing it with edging or placing in a large pot, may be the most practical way to grow it here.
Hoja santa will freeze back if we have really cold weather, but will come back from the roots.
So, don’t give up on it, if we have a freeze. Just wait until it warms, usually around the end of February, and cut it back to the ground.
This is a perennial herb in South Texas and one that is easy to grow. The Root Beer plant, hoja santa, will be on sale today at the Growing Growers Farmers Market in McAllen for those who would like to try growing it. If you are interesting in using the leaves for your favorite Mexican dish, leaves will also be available.
This market is open from 9 a.m. to noon and it is located in Firemen’s Park, on the corner of First Street and Business 83. Call (956) 330-6410 for more information.
Barbara Storz is a local horticulturist. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.