Rattle the dry seed stalks of a wild plant called perilla and you may think a rattlesnake is nearby. That's how the plant got one of its names - rattlesnake weed - but it is also called beef steak plant, wild basil and summer coleus. It grows widely in the Ozarks and can be used as a food and flavoring.
One variety of perilla found in the Ozarks has purple leaves. Sometimes the leaves of this variety are so large that they remind one of a slice of raw beef, hence the reference to beefsteak. It is sometime confused with basil because of the scent of the plant and the shape and coloration of the leaf. Both plants are members of the Labiatae or mint family. Even though perilla (perilla frutescens) has a scent similar to the other members of the mint family, its odor and flavor are distinct. The predominant scent and taste is that of cinnamon or nutmeg. Old timers throughout the Ozarks harvested perilla for the greens pot and to flavor homemade sausage. At one time, it was one of the main ingredients in sarsaparilla.
Perilla was brought to the United States in the late 1800s by Asian immigrants. The Japanese brought perilla seeds with them to cultivate, just as European immigrants brought grain seeds from their respective homelands. This cultivation began mainly on the west coast.
With the help of the birds and the wind and the resettlement of some of the immigrants further inland, the seed eventually spread into the Ozarks and Appalachians. Here it found ideal growing conditions and began to rapidly resow and naturalize.
Perilla is used in many Asian culinary dishes. It is a common seasoning in Japan, where it is used fresh or pickled and combined with fish, rice, vegetables and soups. It is also chopped and combined with gingerroot, then added to stir-fries, tempuras and salads, though it should not be eaten in large quantities as it may cause health problems.
The flat, green variety is preferred in Japan, where it grows wild. There are at least a dozen varieties of perilla, but all varieties are referred to by the Japanese as "Shiso." Certain varieties are also cultivated for their rich oil content. This oil is used to make a quick-drying varnish. Other uses for perilla include a red dye made from the purple-leaved variety and a paint and ink dryer. It is also used in traditional Asian medicine.
Perilla foliage varies in color from reddish-purple to deep green. The leaves can be smooth or ruffled, rough in texture, stiff-haired and heavily or lightly toothed. The height of the plant ranges from eight inches to three feet, depending on the variety.
Perilla blooms from June to September throughout the Ozarks. Bees tend to prefer it in June and July. It also is a favorite of the meadow fritillary and the southern sooty wing butterfly.
The flowers vary from pale lavender to white in color, and blooms are clustered around square stalks like other mints. The flowers are about 1/4-inch long. Seeds form in a sheath or calyx, which turns from purple to green as the seeds mature. The seeds are round, mottled with purple and grouped four to a calyx.
Perilla readily self-sows, which makes it an easy annual to grow. Sow the seed in full sun to partial shade in well-drained soil. Do not overwater this plant. To harvest perilla for cooking, collect the leaves in the morning, just after the dew has evaporated and before the morning sun has a chance to dry them. They can also be harvested during the cool of the evening.
The leaves can be used fresh, pickled in brine or frozen for future use. The purple-leaved varieties make pink-hued herb vinegar. In the wild, perilla can be gathered and used to flavor fish cooked over the campfire or added to the wild greens pot (cooked or raw).
In addition to being used for cooking, the purple varieties are a nice contrast in the garden when paired with silver-leaved plants such as wormwoods and grey-leaved salvias. Grown as an ornamental in the garden, the seed heads can be collected and dried for use in arrangements and wreaths. During the Victorian age, perilla was in vogue as a carpet bedding plant for the garden and for use in flower arrangements, potpourris and tussie-mussies.
Don't fail to notice this newcomer to the Ozarks on your next walk in the woods. On closer inspection, it just might surprise you with its scent and history.