Mystery Plant

  • Thursday, September 19, 2013

PHOTO BY JOHN NELSON

 
 HAI! Yes, I am a huge fan of Japanese food, and back in the mid-80's I became a big adherent of the local sushi cuisine here in Columbia, South Carolina. If you are not a student of sushi and sashimi, please take some time to give it a try: Fresh, clean flavors that speak of the ocean, as well as the land. There's going to be something for every taste. (Don't forget the hot wasabi!) For those of you who prefer cooked food, nearly all Japanese food establishments offer delightful tempura (fried) preparations, as well as grilled foods, and of course, soups, salads and cooked vegetables.
One of the vegetables I am particularly fond of is the fried leaf of a marvelous plant, which we botanists maintain in the "mint" family. As a tempura item, it may be dipped in batter and lightly sautéed, rendering a delicate flavor.
The taste is hard to describe: it is at once somewhat sweet and musky. A sort of oily sweetness. And delicious. The fresh leaves are also good to eat, too, sometimes accompanying a beautify portion of raw yellowtail.
This plant, of course, is a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae), known mostly for its great variabilty in fragrance (mint...basil...sage...rosemary...lavender...) and a huge number of ornamentals (especially the sages, in the genus Salvia). There are plenty of Southeastern native species in this family, too, which have been adapted for gardens, such as mountain-mint, lion's mane, and obedient plant. There are plenty of weeds, as well: Florida "betony" is a relatively recent, and troublesome, interloper in gardens throughout the Southeast.
Our Mystery Plant is perfectly placed within the mint family (Lamiaceae), with square stems and opposite leaves. The stalked leaves are oval-shaped, usually with toothy margins. The flowers are equipped with a tubular calyx (green), and a tubular corolla (pink). The corolla, bearing four tiny stamens inside, is bilabiate, that is, featuring an upper and lower lip. These flowers are popular with bees and butterflies. After blooming, the plants lose their leaves. In the dead of winter, the dried stems remain, most of the time, forming interesting dried arrangements along paths and garden margins. Of course, it does spread by seed, and can be potentially weedy.
 Many gardeners will recognize the close resemblance this plant has with the popular garden Coleus, but they aren't the same thing. Our Mystery species is in fact a native of eastern Asia, but has now become reasonably common in much of the eastern USA. It is a weed in some cases, but is sometimes grown on purpose for its fragrant leaves. Again, the leaves don't smell like mint, but rather have a curiously oily, musky flavor. Very sweet. In fact, the leaves were at one time used as a flavoring agent in cigars. I'm wondering now if the leaves of this plant wouldn't be good as a substitute for basil, with ripe tomatoes, offered with sliced mozzarella, slathered with olive oil, and generously sprinkled with salt and pepper...?
 
John Nelson is the curator of the A. C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia SC 29208. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or call 803-777-8196, or email nelson@sc.edu.
 
Answer: “Beefsteak plant," "Japanese basil," Perilla frutescens]

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