Scientific Name: Piper auritum
Common Names: Hierba Santa, Hoja Santa, Mexican Pepperleaf, Root Beer Plant, False Kava, Anisillo, Acoyo, Santa Maria, Hoja de Jute, Xmakulan, Tlanecpahquílitl (Nahuatl)
Native Range: Southern Mexico to Colombia
Piper auritum grows in tropical forests from Mexico to South America and its spicy leaves are used for various culinary and medicinal purposes. The leaves of P. auritum contain safrole, which imparts a spicy flavor to its leaves, making it valuable as a seasoning. Safrole is a carcinogen and the same compound that gives sassafras root beer its spicy taste. Plants in the Piper genus used as medicinal plants in cultures throughout the world, and pharmacological studies have demonstrated that they contain a variety of bioactive compounds.
Piper auritum is used for a variety of medicinal purposes in Mexico, Central America and Colombia. The Chinatec in Oaxaca, Mexico brew the leaves to make an infusion that is given to women to facilitate childbirth or stimulate menstrual flow (Browner, 1985), and the leaf tea is also used as a digestive in Mexico. In Guatemala, a tea of P. auritum leaves is used to ease menstrual pain and encourage lactation. The Yucatec Maya apply the leaves of P. auritum directly to wounds (Caamal-Fuentes et. al, 2001). In the Antioquia and Chocó departments of Colombia, the leaves are ground to make a poultice used for snakebites (Vasquez et al., 2013), and in El Salvador, the juice of the leaves is used to remove ticks (Schultes, 1975). In Costa Rica, the leaves are applied directly to the head to cure headaches.
Given its wide usage among indigenous groups, P. auritum and other plants in the Piper genus have been the subject of several pharmacological studies. This research has indicated antifungal, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, antidiabetic, antiulcer, and antiprotozoal properties (Gupta et al., 2013). The plants essential oil demonstrates antibacterial, insecticidal properties, and is effective as a repellent. A recent study suggests that extracts of P. auritum are effective as an anti-venom for snake bites (Rengifo-Riosa et. al, 2019).
The aromatic, peppery leaves of P. auritum are used to season soups, stews, wild meats, and other dishes in Central America and Mexico. In Guatemala, snail soup seasoned with P. auritum is considered a delicacy; its local name, Hoja de Jute, reflects this usage. In the Yucatan, the large leaves of the plant are used to season tamales, and may be used as a wrapping for tamales in place of banana leaves or cornhusks (Salazar et al., 2012). The leaves and stems are also eaten raw in salads. People living along the Río Indio in central Panama use the leaves of P. auritum as bait to catch fish. They use the leaves as bait in traps in small pools in the river, and allow the fish to feed on the P. auritum leaves for two weeks so that their flesh is seasoned by the flavorful leaves (Joly, 1981).
Botanical and Other Notes
In Nashville, P. auritum grows as a small shrub, but in its native range and other tropical areas it can grow up to 6 meters (nearly 20 feet) tall. The plant spreads via rhizome roots that send up new shoots. Seeds of P. auritum are dispersed by bats, birds and rodents in its native range (Denslow and Nelson, 2000). P. auritum grows from sea level up to 1200 meters (4000 feet).
P. auritum is an invasive species in Florida, Hawaii, and other areas of the United States, where it threatens to decrease local biodiversity. Brought to Florida as an ornamental plant, it has spread and displaced native forests due to its rapid growth and formation of dense thickets. In Hawaii, P. auritum was accidentally planted as true kava (Piper methysticum) in the 1990s and is referred to as ‘awa or false kava. The two plants can be distinguished easily as only P. auritum leaves display the anise-like smell when crushed or rubbed, and their leaves have different vein patterns.
CABI: Invasive Species Compendium. Piper auritum. https://www.cabi.org/isc/datasheet/41359. Accessed 23 February 2019.
Browner, C.H. Plants used for reproductive health in Oaxaca, Mexico. Economic Botany, 39 (1985); pp. 482-504.
Caamal-Fuentes, Edgar and Luis W. Torres-Tapia, Paulino Simá-Polanco, Sergio R. Peraza-Sánchez, and Rosa Moo-Puc. Screening of plants used in Mayan traditional medicine to treat cancer-like symptoms. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, Volume 135, Issue 3 (2011); pp. 719-724.
Denslow JS, Nelson D, 2000. “Escape and Spread of Piper Auritum Kunth on Pohnpei, Federated States of Micronesia.” Impact assessment. Pacific Island Ecosystems at Risk (online: http://www.hear.org/pier/piaurr.htm)
Duke, James A with Mary Jo Bogenschutz-Godwin and Andrea R. Ottesen. Duke’s Handbook of Plants of Latin America. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL, 2009.
Durant-Archibold, Armando A. Santana, Ana Isabel. Gupta, Mahabir P. “Ethnomedical uses and pharmacological activities of most prevalent species of genus Piper in Panama: A review.” Journal of ethnopharmacology, vol. 217, no. 11 (2018); pp. 63-82.
Joly, Luz Graciela. “Feeding and Trapping Fish with Piper auritum. Economic Botany, vol. 35, 4 (1981); pp. 383-390.
Kaua’i Invasive Species Committee: False Kava. https://www.kauaiisc.org/kiscpests/false-kava/ Accessed July 3, 2020.
Gutierrez, Rosa Martha Perez. Effect of the hexane extract of Piper auritum on insulin release from beta-cell and oxidative stress in streptozotocin-induced diabetic rat. Pharmacogn Mag, 8 (2012); pp. 308-313.
Mgbeahuruike, E.E. and T. Yrjönen, H. Vuorela, and Y. Holm. Bioactive compounds from medicinal plants: Focus on Piper species. South African Journal of Botany, 112 (2017); pp. 54-69.
Monzote L., M. García, A.M. Montalvo, R. Scull, M. Miranda. Chemistry, cytotoxicity and antileishmanial activity of the essential oil from Piper auritum. Memórias do Instituto Oswaldo Cruz, 105 (2010), pp. 168-173.
Rengifo-Riosa, Angie Marcela and Luis Miguel Muñoz-Gómezam Fabio Antonio Cabezas-Fajardo, Jimmy Alexander Guerrero-Vargas. Edematic and coagulant effects caused by the venom of Bothrops rhombeatus neutralized by the ethanolic extract of Piper auritum. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 242 (2019).
Salazar, Carmen and Daniel Zizumbo-Villareal, Stephen B. Brush, and Patricia Colunga-García Marín. Earth Ovens (Píib) in the Maya Lowlands: Ethnobotanical Data Supporting Early Use. Economic Botany, 66 (2012); pp. 285–297.
Schultes, Richard Evans. DE PLANTIS TOXICARIIS E MUNDO NOVO TROPICALE COMMENTATIONES XII: Notes onbiodynamic piperaceous plants. Rhodora, Vol. 77, No. 810 (1975), pp. 165-170
Vásquez, Julieta and Silvia L. Jiménez, Isabel C. Gómez, Jessica P. Rey, Ana M. Henao, Daniela M. Marín, Jefferson O. Romero, and Juan C. Alarcón. Snakebites and ethnobotany in the Eastern region of Antioquia, Colombia – The traditional use of plants. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 146 (2013); pp. 449-455.
Initial research and description of Piper auritum provided by Alethea Chaney as part of a first-year seminar, ANTH 1001-01 (Spring 2019).