Mystery Plant! #741
By John Nelson
“The average American’s simplest and commonest form of breakfast consists of coffee and beefsteak.”
-attributed to Mark Twain
This week’s Mystery Plant is sometimes called “Beefsteak plant”, so the common name is not a mystery. But what a really interesting plant it is, in part because of its common name. I’m not really why, except that the leaves on some plants, in various circumstances, are reddish, like meat.
This species is native to eastern Asia, where it occurs in at least two similar forms, both of which are used as a culinary herb: one of the varieties provides a flavorful oil from the crushed seeds, popular in Korean and Japanese dishes. The leaves have a curiously oily, musky flavor, and they are sweet to the taste (well, to mine), and you’ll sometimes see it served with sushi. The species has been introduced into North America, and is now widely distributed in most of the eastern states, usually considered a weed. It is blooming now here in central South Carolina, and I’m seeing it frequently, often in association with “fill” soil and around bridges and causeways.
This plant, of course, is a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae), known mostly for its great variability in fragrance (mint…basil…sage…rosemary…lavender…) and a huge number of attractive 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.
Beefsteak Plant is perfectly placed within the mint family, with its square stems and opposite leaves. The leaves are stalked, and 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. Each individual flower can make 4 separate little seeds (one-seeded fruits, actually). 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. If you walk through a patch, the stems will give off a delicate clatter. Of course, it does spread by seed, and those seeds do get around.
Many gardeners will recognize the close resemblance this plant has with the popular garden Coleus, but they aren’t the same thing. 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. 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…?
[Answer: “Beefsteak plant”, Perilla frutescens]
John Nelson is the retired curator of the Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or email email@example.com.
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