Hoja Santa - Piper auritum
Location: On the East Campus near the northeast corner of the Health Sciences Center (HSC). (Map)
Piper auritum is a member of the Piperaceae (Pepper Family) which is a large family of flowering plants. The family has approximately 1,900 species in five genera. The Piper species grow as vines, shrubs and small trees in tropical and subtropical regions from South America to Mexico. Many of these plants are commercially important, especially Piper nigrum which is the source of black pepper. The members of this family are characterized by their pungent leaves that grow singly. The specific epithet of Piper auritum indicates that the leaf is heart-shaped. Each leaf may grow to a length of 12 inches. The simple leaves grow from a single main stem and have an anise or sassafras scent. There are several common names for this plant such as: Hoja santa (Sacred Leaf), Yerba Santa (Holy Plant), Root Beer Plant. This plant is not native to North America, but it available in nurseries and is being grown in some warmer regions of the country such as California.
Hoja Santa can grow to a height and width of six feet or more. It is not really a shrub or small tree; it is actually more like a giant herb. This plant spreads by underground runners and can quickly take over an area. Since it is so invasive, it is best to grow it in containers. Piper auritum will freeze to the ground with the first winter freeze, but it will leaf out again in the spring. Preferred growth conditions for this plant are soil that is enriched with organic matter and morning sun with afternoon shade. However, it will grow in most sunny or shady locations in less rich soils if it is watered at least twice a month in the summer.
When this plant blooms, it produces numerous but inconspicuous flowers. The individual flowers have no sepals or petals. They are arranged in spike infloresences that are elevated above the leaves where they are pollinated by small beetles and flies. As the fruiting spikes ripen, they are rotated beneath the foliage. At maturity the fruiting spike is green and fleshy and has many fig-like seeds. The seeds are dispersed by bats that break off the entire spike, birds that break off parts of the stalk and probably by animals.1
Piper auritum produces chemical compounds called safroles which give the leaves and roots a strong anise aroma. The effects of these compounds are not known, but it is proven that safroles produced by Sassafras album are carcinogenic in some animals. Medical uses are reported in the native range of this plant for a wide variety of ailments, but their efficacy and safety have not been verified. The leaves are used for flavoring meat and snails in Guatemala. In some places the leaves are used to wrap fish for baking. In Mexico the dried or fresh leaves are used to flavor Mole’ dishes or tamales.
As stated above, this plant is not native to this country and perhaps it would never adapt well enough to be a problem. However, it is very invasive so it should be handled with care.