Medicinal plants

Mexican Leaf Pepper – Use & Treatment for Health

Mexican leaf pepper

The Mexican leaf pepper is an impressive plant with large leaves, which is indispensable in Mexican cuisine – even though the active ingredient contained in the leaves is not harmless. The customary name Hoja Santa suggests that this is exactly why the plant was used ritually in the practice of religion in Aztec and Mayan times.

Occurrence and cultivation of Mexican leaf pepper

The Mexican leaf pepper is a plant that is known and appreciated beyond the borders of Mexico. Designations for the Mexican leaf pepper are also Piper Auritum (Latin), Ear Pepper and Eared Pepper (German), Sacred Pepper and Rootbeer Plant (English) as well as Anisillo , Hoja Santa and Yerba Santa (Spanish). The popular spice plant belongs to the pepper family and is not only native to Mexico.

Mexican leaf pepper also thrives in other tropical Central American countries such as Panama, Guatemala and northern Colombia. Outside of its distribution area (i.e. in Europe), the Mexican leaf pepper is less known as a spice. This means that it is very rarely possible to purchase fresh and dried leaves in the food trade. For enthusiasts, however, there are nurseries through which the plant can be procured.

It is a decorative hardy container plant that can be harvested again and again by pruning back heavily. The shrub forms handsome white flowers that grow up to 20 centimeters in size. The leaves, which are important for the kitchen, can grow to about 30 centimeters. The leaves are slightly hairy on the underside. They taste aromatic and are vaguely reminiscent of nutmeg, anise and, due to their sharpness, pepper .

Effect & Application

The young, heart-shaped leaves in particular have a strong aroma. This is because with old leaves, the leaf style is already lignified. The plant is used in a variety of ways in Mexican cuisine. On the one hand, the leaves are used as a garnish, but they can also be stuffed, steamed or grilled. The “Pescado con Hoja Santa” (Mexican Pepper Fish) is a famous recipe that uses the pepper leaves for wrapping.

The finished roulades are then placed in a gratin dish and baked until they are done. This specialty has its origins in the state of Veracruz. Pepper leaves are used particularly often in this region. Pepper leaf spice is also very common in central Mexico as an addition to hot chocolate. And the plant is also an integral part of the nationwide known “Mole Verde”. Compared to the other Moles, the Mole Verde uses a lot of fresh herbs.

The base is a strong chicken broth prepared with cumin , cloves, chili peppers, tomatillo fruits and garlic . The sauce is thickened with a little cornmeal and seasoned with a leaf pepper puree. This side dish is particularly popular with poultry. Compared to other Moles, however, it is important that it is always freshly prepared.

The taste of the Mexican leaf pepper is characterized by an essential oil that is contained at 0.2 percent in the freshly picked pepper leaves. 80 percent of the oil is made up of the phenylpropanoid safrole. The safrole can also be found in many other types of pepper. In black pepper, on the other hand, only small traces of this substance can be detected.

Importance for health, treatment & prevention

Due to the high proportion of safrole contained in the leaves, its use in the kitchen is quite controversial. During the cooking process, the leaves give off their flavor to the dish in a very short time. While extremely tasty, safrole is also known to be a toxic substance that can produce hallucinogenic effects. However, many Mexicans are happy to take the risk in order to preserve their long-established cooking tradition.

The avocado leaf is repeatedly recommended as an alternative in cookbooks. The use of Mexican winter tarragon or French tarragon is also conceivable in terms of taste. Other strong-tasting kitchen herbs such as thyme or savory can also be used as a substitute for the pepper leaves. Unfortunately, these substitute herbs are only suitable for dishes in which Mexican leaf pepper is used as a spice (pureed).

If the leaves are needed to wrap meat, fish or poultry, tarragon , thyme and savory are not the right choice. An attempt with Thai basil would be conceivable here, although the leaves are much smaller in size. The active ingredient safrole is said to have a good effect on rheumatic complaints , fever and diarrhea , and the drug can also relieve menstrual disorders and complaints in the urogenital area. This applies to cases in which the safrole or the pepper leaves are taken orally.

For external use, Mexican leaf pepper is suitable for treating wounds and insect bites . When dried, the leaves are used as incense – a tradition that has its origins in the Maya and Aztec eras. One can only speculate about another use at this time, but the name “Santa” (holy) in the designation suggests important tasks.

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Hello! I am Lisa Newlon, and I am a medical writer and researcher with over 10 years of experience in the healthcare industry. I have a Master’s degree in Medicine, and my deep understanding of medical terminology, practices, and procedures has made me a trusted source of information in the medical world.