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Revitalizing Shiso

What is shiso? Beloved in Asia, yet rarer in the United States, the mint family’s fast-growing shiso benefits our health and adds an interesting flavor to dishes.

| Winter 2016-2017

  • Beloved in Asia, yet rarer in the United States, the mint family's fast-growing shiso lends rich color and distinctive flavor to dishes as well as vitality to the garden.
    Photo by Fotolia/hansgeel
  • Several kinds of shiso have leaves that are green on top and purplish on their undersides.
    Photo by istock/gomezdavid
  • Shiso cultivars can be a vibrant green or bright purple-to-red, like this example.
    Photo by Fotolia/eqroy

Also known as perilla, beefsteak plant, or Japanese basil, shiso (Perilla frutescens) has a pleasant smell and a taste that’s hard to describe: Basil and mint? Cinnamon and coriander? No matter what you call it, the flavor complements many different dishes, from salads to pasta to vegetables. In Japan, red shiso leaves give flavor and reddish color to umeboshi, pickled ume plums used as a salty, tart condiment at meals. Because of its food-preserving ability, green shiso often accompanies the raw fish in sushi or sashimi.

What is shiso’s appeal beyond its flavor? In Chinese medicine, shiso is seen as almost a cure-all. Its leaves and seeds are used for poor blood circulation, coughs, colds and flu, nausea and food poisoning, morning sickness, asthma and other chronic respiratory ailments, and as a general health tonic. It’s also being studied for both anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties.

The seeds of shiso are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. You can dry and powder the seeds, just like the leaves, and you can stir-fry or batter-fry the whole, fresh, immature seed head. Oil is extracted from the seeds and used in cooking as well as in manufacturing (for varnish). Dried seed heads accent potpourri and dried flower arrangements.

The old masters of the martial arts claimed that shiso kept them more flexible, young-looking, and vital. Perhaps this is true, since shiso plays a part in the famous longevity diet from Okinawa. Even if none of its health claims are proven, shiso benefits our diets, as well as our gardens.

Growing Shiso

A member of the vigorous mint family, shiso establishes itself easily in the garden. It’s eye-catching, with its green or reddish-purple, ruffled leaves spread among flowers in a bed or along the back of a landscaping border. Shiso can grow up to 36 inches tall, but trim it regularly so you’ll have a shorter, bushier plant that doesn’t go to seed as quickly. Shiso makes a good companion for tomatoes in the vegetable garden, and bees and butterflies love the tiny flowers that appear on the plants in late summer and early fall.

Shiso likes well-drained, sunny areas but can grow in partial shade and heavier soils. Growing shiso is quite simple. First, several seed companies recommend storing seeds in the freezer for at least a week or two to help with germination. A few weeks before the last frost, start the plants in pots by covering the seeds lightly with soil. Set the pots outside to expose seeds to the cold temperatures they’ll need to sprout. When they’re up and growing, transplant them to the desired location in your garden, though they’ll also grow easily in containers.

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