Last Updated: September 24, 2023

Root Beer Plant (Piper auritum)

By Published On: September 13th, 20233.5 min readCategories: Garden, Plants

Last Updated: September 24, 2023

A lush Central and South American native with root beer scented leaves and a peppery-licorice flavor

Leaves of a Mexican pepperleaf plant

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.

Growth habit

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.

A closeup of the heart shaped leaves of the piper auritum

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

Food

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.

a photo of piper auritum plant stems

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.

Landscaping

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.

A tropical garden

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

Plant Details
Common Name Root beer plant, hoja santa, sacred pepper, Mexican pepperleaf, Vera Cruz pepper
Botanical Name Piper auritum
Plant Family Piperaceae
Native to Central/South America, Caribbean
Plant Type Tree-like perennial
Mature Size 4-6 ft. tall, spreads easily
Sun Exposure Partial to full shade
Soil Type Any (not picky)
Soil pH Any (not picky)
Water Moderate. Requires moist soil
Bloom Time Summer
Flower Color White
Hardiness Zones 8b-11 (USDA)

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About the Author

author avatar
Sage Osterfeld
I’m just a guy with nearly an acre of dirt, a nice little mid-century ranch house and a near-perfect climate. But in my mind I’m a landscaper survivalist craftsman chef naturalist with a barbeque the size of a VW and my own cable TV show. I like to write about the stuff I build, grow and see here at Sage's Acre.

One Comment

  1. […] places where freezing weather is common, but here in USDA zone 9, it’s brutal. Subtropicals like rootbeer plant, peppers, and guava are all brown and shriveled from the […]

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