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ShrubbySpecies Plant

Piper auritum

Piper auritum

Mexican pepperleaf or root beer plant, Vera Cruz pepper, sacred pepper (Piper auritum Kunth, 1815) is a shrub species belonging to the Piperaceae family.

Systematic –
From a systematic point of view it belongs to:
Eukaryota domain,
Kingdom Plantae,
Division Magnoliophyta,
Class Magnoliopsida,
Subclass Magnoliidae,
Order Piperales,
Piperaceae family,
Genre Piper,
Species P. auritum.
The terms are synonymous:
– Artanthe aurita (Kunth) Miq.;
– Artanthe sancta Miq.;
– Artanthe seemanniana Miq.;
– Piper alstonii Trel.;
– Piper auritilaminum Trel.;
– Piper auritilimbum Trel.;
– Piper auritum var. amplifolium C.DC.;
– Piper auritum var. schiedeanum C.DC.;
– Piper auritum var. seemannianum (Miq.) Trel.;
– Piper heraldii Trel.;
– Piper heraldii var. amplius Trel.;
– Piper heraldii var. amplius Trel. ex Woodson & Schery;
– Piper heraldii var. cocleanum Trel.;
– Piper perlongipes Trel.;
– Piper sanctum (Miq.) Schltdl.;
– Piper sanctum (Miq.) Schltdl. ex C.DC.;
– Schilleria aurita (Kunth) Kunth.

Etymology –
The term Piper comes from the Greek πέπερι péperi (in Sanskrit píppali): pepper.
The specific epithet auritum comes from the Latin “auritus, a, um”, that is, it has long ears, in reference to the shape of the leaves.

Geographic Distribution and Habitat –
Piper auritum is a plant native to the Americas, particularly in an area that includes Belize, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua and Panama; it is also cultivated in California and southeast Florida and has recently been introduced in Bolivia and Hawaii.
Its habitat is that of areas on the edges of humid forests and in open spaces from sea level up to about 2000 m above sea level; the plant is characteristic of disturbed sites and along rivers and roads, in acahuales, in plantations such as coffee or cocoa. In Guatemala it grows in forests, riparian zones and wetlands throughout the country. In El Salvador it is known throughout the country. In Costa Rica it is common in all humid areas. In these areas it often tends to form dense thickets in abandoned land, also due to the great abundance of seeds produced.

Description –
Piper auritum is a perennial plant, which grows in the form of a shrub or small tree, 1.5 to 5 m tall, with stems with visible and smooth nodes. The stems are branched and the young branches are covered with abundant soft hair.
It can form a main root or possibly, depending on the type of soil, it can form lateral roots. It can also form adventitious roots.
The leaves are simple, alternate, with blades of 13-35 x 12-26 cm, ovate or broadly ovate to elliptical-ovate in shape, with acute apex, the base is heart-shaped to deeply auriculate (ear-shaped), the largest lobe, as long as the petiole and often overlapping, the shortest up to 1/3 of the length of the petiole, the entire margin, slightly pubescent, petiolate.
The inflorescences are spikes located in the axillary position, 6 to 35 cm long and 4-5 mm thick, white to light green in colour, thin with a “rat’s tail” appearance. The flowers are tiny, densely grouped on the rachis without forming bands around the spike.
The fruits are 0.8–1 mm long, obovoid in shape, glabrous, light green in color, with one seed.

Cultivation –
Piper auritum is a plant that rarely becomes woody in the lower part that is sometimes collected in the wild for its leaves, which are used as a flavoring in foods.
It is an easy to cultivate and fast growing plant with particularly ornamental foliage, cultivable in tropical, subtropical and marginally warm temperate climates, where it can tolerate temperatures up to around 0 °C without damage, lower temperatures, up to around -6 °C, destroy the aerial part, but the plant is usually able to regrow from the roots in spring.
It can grow in full sun but a partially shaded position is preferable and it is not particularly demanding regarding the soil, as long as it is well draining; watering in summer must be regular and abundant, requiring permanently moist soil.
Where the climate does not allow continuous permanence outdoors, it can be grown in pots, in sandy, draining soil, rich in organic substance, to be able to be sheltered in winter in a protected, bright environment, with temperatures preferably not lower than 10° C.
This plant exhibits rapid proliferation from the surface of the rhizomes and can form large populations in short periods of time. The flowers are pollinated by small beetles or flies. The seeds are dispersed by bats and birds, which remove the entire ear.
It is a plant that can be propagated asexually and is common in gardens as an everyday plant in Mexican cuisine.

Customs and Traditions –
Piper auritum is a plant known by various common names; among these we report: anison, ear-leaf pepper, false kava, mexican pepper leaf, root beer plant, sacred pepper, Vera Cruz pepper (English); acoyo, acullo cimarrón, acuyo, alajan, anisillo, cordoncillo, cordoncillo blanco, hierba santa, hinojo sabalero, hoja de estrella, hoja de jute, hoja santa, hoja de Santa María, momo, monca blanca, pimienta sagrada, Santa María, santilla de comer (Spanish); anispfeffer, mexikanischer blatpfeffer (German).
A Mexican legend has it that the Virgin Mary dried Baby Jesus’ diapers in a bush of this plant from which one of the names derives.
This plant is often used in Mexican cuisine, especially in the tamales of some areas of southern Mexico, where fish or meat are wrapped in its fragrant leaves to cook exquisite dishes, such as tapixtle and pilte from southern Veracruz and Tabasco. In Guatemala it is used in the Maya-Q’eqchi’ region to prepare pachay, which is essentially fish with chili pepper and achiote, wrapped in Santa María leaves, to further wrap it in banana leaves, maxán leaves can also be used, it is buried and a bonfire is lit on top of which a fish soup is cooked. Once the soup is ready, the fish are dug up and the pachay is steamed, this is an authentic pre-Hispanic recipe.
In addition to being used as a condiment, the leaves are used as stomach calmers, analgesics and stimulants in traditional medicine. The particular flavor of acuyo has been compared to that of various plants: eucalyptus, licorice, sassafras, anise, nutmeg, mint, tarragon and black pepper.
In homeopathy, the tincture of the whole plant and dilutions are used against asthma, bronchitis, acute or chronic laryngitis, dyspnea and inflammation in general.
Piper auritum leaf oil contains a relatively high concentration of the hepatotoxic safrole, approximately 70%. Some of the other 40 constituents present in smaller quantities were α-thujene, α-pinene, camphene, β-pinene, myrcene, and limonene.
The leaves contain high concentrations of safrole, which gives them their typical aroma, a toxic aromatic compound, suspected carcinogen, their use should therefore be discouraged in some way or in any case limited by avoiding excesses; the leaves have also been used since ancient times in folk medicine for various pathologies.
When crushed, the stems and leaves give off a strong anise odor.

Preparation Method –
The fresh or dried leaves of Piper auritum are used, particularly in Mexican cuisine, to flavor various dishes and to wrap meat or fish for cooking, to prepare a typical green sauce and a liqueur.
It is often used in Mexican cuisine in tamales, fish or meat wrapped in its fragrant leaves for cooking, and as an essential ingredient in mole verde, a green sauce originating from the Oaxaca region of Mexico.
It is also used to flavor eggs and soups such as pozole. In central Mexico it is used to flavor chocolate drinks. In southeastern Mexico, a green liqueur called verdín is obtained from hoja santa.
Although it is typically used fresh, it is also used dried, although the drying process removes much of the flavor and makes the leaf too fragile to use as a wrapper.
The young leaves, occasionally cooked, are eaten as vegetables.
The leaves have the flavor and aroma of sarsaparilla.
The leaves are wrapped around the tamale dough before it is packed in corn leaves and steamed.
In the medicinal field, the leaves are used as stomach calmers, analgesics and stimulants in traditional medicine.
It is also used in homeopathy where a tincture (and its dilutions) is prepared, obtained from the whole plant to treat asthma, bronchitis, acute or chronic laryngitis, dyspnea and inflammation in general.

Guido Bissanti

– Acta Plantarum – Flora of the Italian Regions.
– Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
– GBIF, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility.
– Useful Tropical Plants Database.
– Conti F., Abbate G., Alessandrini A., Blasi C. (ed.), 2005. An annotated checklist of the Italian vascular flora, Palombi Editore.
– Pignatti S., 1982. Flora d’Italia, Edagricole, Bologna.
– Treben M., 2000. Health from the Lord’s Pharmacy, Advice and experiences with medicinal herbs, Ennsthaler Editore.

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Attention: Pharmaceutical applications and food uses are indicated for informational purposes only, they do not represent in any way a medical prescription; we therefore decline any responsibility for their use for healing, aesthetic or food purposes.

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