Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Perilla frutescens

When this plant first caught my eye a few years ago I was so intrigued with its bold presence, strong structure and unique fragrance, I quickly set out identifying it. And once I realized what this beauty was I was overjoyed to have it growing in my earthspace. (This is often how I learn new plants these days...they come to me. It wasn't always this way. In my early days of plant identification I had it in my mind that I must be the intrepid wilderness hiker, traversing the landscape in search of the elusive medicinal wonders. And because I believed that, that is what happened. This is how I met poke, and skullcap, and mullein...only to realize that once I journeyed out across the vast woodland and fields to make these plants' acquaintances, I would then find them growing on the side of the road, in the vacant lot, through the cracks in the sidewalks. Ahhh, but that is the ultimate lesson in life. What we travel so far to seek is often right under our nose the whole time. But I am getting off the subject now. I wanted to introduce you to Shiso.....)

Shiso, otherwise known as perilla, otherwise known as Chinese basil, otherwise known as wild red basil, otherwise known as purple mint, otherwise known as rattlesnake weed, otherwise known as beefsteak plant (I don't like that name), otherwise known as summer coleus, a plant of many names, but little known or used in this part of the world. Shiso is an asian plant from the mint family that was brought to the United States in the 1800's by Asian immigrants and has since natralized. It is easily recognized as a mint by its square stem, opposite leaves and tiny mint-like flowers. The leaves are very fragrant, like many plants from the mint family and to me smell like a licorice basil of sorts. The stems and flowers are purple, and even the green leaves have a hint of purple, some being very purple underneath...

The plants in my garden are a good 4 to 5 feet tall right now and in full flower, with a very bushy and full structure. They could almost pass as small bushes. However, shiso is an annual and will die back at the end of the season, so harvesting now is priority for anyone who wants to make use of this lovely herb.

The leaves are edible and have been traditionally served with sushi. Because they are warming and stimulating to digestion, they balance the cold of the raw fish (as do ginger and wasabi). Shiso has a long history of use in Chinese Medicine, though it is little known in the west. The plant is an important  lung and digestion herb, useful for treating many conditions. Its properties include antiasthmatic, antibacterial, antimicrobial, antiseptic, antispasmodic, antitussive, aromatic, carminative, diaphoretic, expectorant, pectoral, restorative, stomachic, and tonic. What all of that means, basically, is that this plant is warming, calming, and toning, and will help to ease digestive woes, get rid of offending critters, ease a cough, expel fluid from the lungs and break a fever. All good stuff. Who wouldn't want it growing in their gardens?

This morning I harvested fresh shiso leaves for my morning tea. Although it has a very mild flavor (sweet licorice basil, like I said), the warmth in my lungs and chest was very noticeable on this chilly fall morning. Shiso can be taken this way daily as a tonic for the lungs as we move into the colder months of the year. But I am also making medicine to have on hand for treating conditions as they arise. In addition to making an elixir and drying the herb for tea, I plan on combining shiso with other lung herbs like mullein and coltsfoot. I'm also wondering about a syrup. Hmmmm......

Every new plant offers new possibilities. The best ones are the ones that come to you. Just leaving a little wild space in your yard invites them in. And with the right attitude, one of wonder, inquisitiveness, and gratitude, we can attract the most lovely beings into our experience.

The weed that will not go away and that you continually notice in irritation, the plant that regularly trips you as you walk through the field. Such plants are often some of the most powerful medicines you will find. They stir something in your unconscious, breaking through your habituated not noticing, and intrude on you until you begin to take a real look at them.                                      Stephen Harrod Buhner, Lost Language of Plants