Last Updated: September 24, 2023
A lush Central and South American native with root beer scented leaves and a peppery-licorice flavor
Piper auritum in flower in late summer
About Piper auritum
Piper auritum is a large, leafy perennial native to Central America and the Caribbean. The plant is known by a lot of names – hoja santa, sacred pepper, Mexican pepperleaf, Vera Cruz pepper, and root beer plant being just a few.
I prefer “root beer plant” because the leaves have a vaguely root beer-ish scent and the name is easy to remember. However, it’s not actually used to make root beer. The leaves of the Piper auritum just happen to be high in a compound called safrole, which is found in sassafras, the actual tree used to make root beer.
Like a lot of the trees and shrubs of the tropical Americas, Piper auritum is actually a member of the pepper family.
The plant grows a little over 6 feet tall on longs stems that shoot up from root nodes. The leaves are soft, slightly fuzzy, and shaped like giant hearts, some as large as 16 inches long and 12 inches across
The plant spreads mainly by the roots, which grow in shallow, moist soil. It prefers medium to full shade, but will grow in partial sun, just not as vigorously.
In the summer long, tube-shaped, fuzzy, white flowers emerge from the base of the leaf crotch.
Closeup of Piper auritum flowering
As a tropical plant, it doesn’t do well in the cold. It can live outdoors year-round in USDA zones 8-11, but should be overwintered indoors in zones 7 and lower.
Piper auritum uses
In Mexico and Central America, meat and fish dishes are wrapped in the leaves of the root beer plant and cooked, imparting a peppery-licorice flavor on the food. The green stems and leaf ribs, which are stronger flavored than the leaf itself, are also as flavorings used in some dishes such as tamales and mole verde, as well as beverages such as cocktails and chocolate drinks.
Root Beer plant grows tree-like on stalks up to 6 feet tall
It should be noted that the plant’s leaves are high in safrole, which is toxic and potentially carcinogenic in large amounts. However, the amount that gets into food from cooking is generally negligible.
Piper auritum’s large, velvety leaves and robust spreading habit make it an attractive plant for lush, tropical gardens, especially under large tree canopies or shade structures that provide the dappled sun the plant prefers.
Because it has a tree-like growth habit instead of a shrubby one, it is easy to grow smaller plants who like shade under them as well. In my own tropical garden, we use the root beer plant as a visual screen to enclose the garden in a green, velvety wall. Passion fruit grows overhead, and flowering gingers growth underneath.
Piper auritum (left) in the tropical garden
The one drawback to Piper auritum is that it can get quite invasive if allowed to do so. Given moist soil, the roots spread quickly and you win up with root beer plant in all sorts of places (mine has invaded the yellow guava and lantana in the sunny portion of the tropical garden).
Fortunately, the plant’s roots are quite shallow and are easy to dig out. Additionally, it requires constant moisture, so it can be controlled simply by keeping the soil dry in adjacent areas.
Piper auritum plant details
|Root beer plant, hoja santa, sacred pepper, Mexican pepperleaf, Vera Cruz pepper
|Central/South America, Caribbean
|4-6 ft. tall, spreads easily
|Partial to full shade
|Any (not picky)
|Any (not picky)
|Moderate. Requires moist soil
|Zones 8b-11 (USDA)
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