• Shiso Sexy! Growing Perilla Frutescens from Seed

June 07, 2018

Remarkable foliage. Unusual flavor. A potential for combating a devastating virus, and for preventing food poisoning. Perilla frutescens is gaining traction among North American herb gardeners, especially as we embrace Chinese herbal medicine and Asian cuisine.

There are two varieties of shiso, as it's called in Japan: Those with purplish-red leaves, and those with medium green foliage. Both are similar in growth habits and cultivation and only slightly differ in flavor and aroma.

Shiso is a member of the mint family, most closely related to basil, but don't confuse red shiso with opal basil, which shares its coloring.

Perilla frutescens goes by several common names. Red shiso is called "beefsteak plant" due to its resemblance to a bloody, raw slab o' beef. It's often called kajiso (red) or aojiso (technically "blue", but referring to the green variety), kemangi, Japanese basil and, especially in Australia, just plain perilla.

Growing shiso from seed is doable in almost every climate and has a little something for everyone. It has its own niche as an herbal remedy, and it's a spectacular ornamental whether you interplant both varieties or grow them independently. Chefs will tell you it has a flavor combination that's difficult to replicate in other domestically-grown plants, and while it's gaining in popularity, it's still hard to find Perilla frutescens in produce shops or at your local garden nursery.

Easy isn't always sexy, but shiso's definitely alluring—and it's gentle with virgin gardeners. If we haven't convinced you to jump into your garden beds with a packet of shiso seeds, we promise you'll get there soon.

Shiso Exotic: Perilla's Cultural History

Shiso is native to the lower, lusher slopes of the Himalayas, to China and other parts of southeast Asia. It became popular in Japan in the eighth century and since then, it's been a constant companion to fish and other perishable meats—and not only because of its flavoring. It's long been known to fend off food poisoning; back in the day, fresh fish would go funky in a short amount of time without refrigeration.

Chinese immigrants brought shiso to the United States in the 1800s, and it quickly took hold and naturalized in the Southeast, where it's considered an invasive species.

Shiso Good at Preventing the Shi*s!

Did you tempt fate with that shady strip mall sushi joint where the food circles around the room for hours on tiny little boats? If the chefs (that term being used liberally) stuck to tradition and served shiso with their skanky fish, there's a decent chance you wouldn't have spent the next three hours locked in the bathroom.

Here are the herb's most notable medicinal uses:

  • Relieves symptoms of skin allergies
  • Prevents food poisoning and reduces food allergy symptoms
  • Healing aid for wounds and scrapes
  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Reduces nausea
  • Eases cold and flu symptoms
  • Antiseptic
  • Treats asthma
  • Antibacterial

Scientists have explored the use of shiso juice as a possible water treatment to kill the larvae of mosquito species known to carry Dengue fever. The herb's still a major player in Chinese traditional medicine and gaining traction here in the U.S. Perilla frutescens essential oil is usually labeled with the name "perilla" and is commonly sold in capsule form or in drops.

Here's the disclaimer! If you plan to use herbal concentrates for medicinal purposes, get your physician on the phone and verify that you won't be at risk of agitating your existing conditions or causing an internal nuclear meltdown should your prescriptions interact poorly with your herbal remedies. ESPECIALLY if you're knocked up or nursing.

Perilla frutescens is toxic to horses and cattle, and possibly to those adorable goats in your backyard, so be sure to deadhead your flowers if you or your neighbors are doing the Heidi/Roy Rogers/Pippi Longstocking thing. (If you don't know what we're talking about, go call your parents.)

Shiso Lovely in the Garden

USDA Hardiness Zones: Perilla frutescens grows as an annual in zones 2 through 11, or as a tender perennial in zones 5b and above. In colder areas, transplant your shiso into containers and bring them indoors to grow as a houseplant, or store trimmed down and potted plants in a cool, dark place to protect its roots from freezing weather. Shiso doesn't tolerate frost.

Sunlight Requirements: Shiso is a sun-loving plant, and growing it in light shade curtails its vigor.

Watering Requirements: While shiso is drought-tolerant, it does best with moist, humus-rich soils.

Soil Preferences: Perilla frutescens is tolerant of a wide range of well-drained soils. Its ideal pH is 5.5 and 6, though it won't mind if you fudge it a little. Incorporate compost into your soil to retain consistent moisture. Just remember that most easily-naturalized plants aren't too picky, so don't induce any anxiety attacks; it's hard to kill this plant.

Plant Size: Pick a spot that will accommodate a plant 12" to 30" tall and 10" to 24" wide.

Growing Habit: Shiso is an upright plant with prolific, densely-arranged leaves. It's a fast grower under optimal conditions.

Foliage: Shiso leaves are pleasantly fragrant, and resemble the shape of a broad-tipped spear. Shiso is a relative of basil and has similarly crumpled leaves, but these are serrated and up to four inches long and three wide.

Flowers: Shiso blooms after the summer solstice, when daylight hours are past their peak. Small, two-lipped white to pink flowers grow along tall spikes well into mid-fall. Do you want to attract butterflies to your garden? They love shiso!

Pests and Diseases: Shiso isn't particularly prone to insect, invertebrate, bacterial, fungal, or viral issues. It's also deer-resistant! A plant that can handle itself in a fight...ooh, baby.

Companion Plants: Shiso seems to be gregarious with all the garden plants, so feel free to introduce it wherever you want visual interest or a splash of color. Can you say that about your boyfriend?

Shiso Easy to Grow from Seed

When to Plant: Start shiso seeds indoors 8 to 12 weeks before the last frost, or direct-sow afterward. Seeds germinate in 7 to 14 days with soil temperatures between 65°F and 70°F.

Planting Depth: Shiso requires some sunlight to germinate, so plant seeds directly on top of the soil or no deeper than 1/16".

Plant Spacing: Plant seeds or transplant starts about 12" to 16" apart. Closer spacing will encourage legginess, as the plants compete for sunlight, but when shiso is grown as a commercial crop, it tolerates denser spacing.

Maintenance: Pinch plant tops to keep them filled out and bushy, and trim off seed heads to prevent re-seeding. Don't let the buds go to waste; they're delicious roasted and used as a garnish over seafood! If you're growing shiso from seed for kitchen or herbal use, pinch off flower stems to preserve its flavor and potency.

Shiso doesn't require additional fertilization, though a general-purpose formula will help growth in poorer soils.

Maturity: Shiso fully matures in 80-85 days but in just a moment you'll see why that's somewhat irrelevant.

Harvesting Shiso: As soon as the plant is about six inches tall, you can begin harvesting leaves close to the stem, from which new leaves will grow. Don't harvest more than 1/3 of the plant during the growing season, or it won't have enough energy to spring back (we won't bother commenting on that). Shiso, in spite of its perennial tendencies in warmer climates, tastes best in its first year, so if you're growing them specifically as a culinary herb, treat your plants as annuals and kick them to the curb each fall.

Invasiveness: Shiso easily reseeds and is hermaphroditic (self-fertile), so be sure to watch for volunteers, or keep them in containers. Or not; the plants aren't difficult to yank out of the ground, and big beds of the red and green leaves aren't just attractive, they make a better yield for recipes!

Cautions: Once again...Perilla frutescens is thought to be toxic to horses and cattle. Use caution when growing this herb near ruminants, including sheep and goats.

Shiso Tasty! Cooking with Perilla

Shiso's flavor is reminiscent of clove, cinnamon, citrus, and coriander. Red shiso tends to be a bit milder in these flavors but makes up for it with a hint of anise. Both are sweeter than most culinary herbs. It can be rolled and sliced into ribbons and used with or instead of basil for Thai recipes, or used fresh in place of nori, the dried seaweed used to wrap sushi.

Everyone loves a fresh Caprese salad. You might love it more if you use fresh green shiso instead of its close cousin. And those goats we made you buy? Now you can make fresh mozzarella!

Red shiso is a common Japanese pickling herb, used to color gari (also called amazu shoga), the pickled ginger served with sushi and sashimi dishes as a palate cleanser.

Do you like pickled eggs? Swap beets for shiso for the same sweetness and color, but with the bonus of the herb's complex savory flavor. It's also a traditional Japanese flavoring and color enhancement for pickled plums and a pigment for dyeing textiles and lacquers.

"Perilla seeds form an essential part of the famous seven spices of Japan, which originated more than 300 years ago in Kyoto."

— Dawn Gifford, Small Footprint Family

Whatever name you prefer to use for Perilla frutescens, you'll find a use for it in just about any creative cultural culinary canon (yes, we meant to do that). We always encourage our customers to experiment and come up with their own recipes for fresh, garden-grown herbs and vegetables, but here are a few that you can use as "springboards" for inspired cooking:

Shiso Yummy Recipes

Japanese Red Shiso Juice: Shihiko shares her recipes inspired by the years she spent in Japan as a kid. "It is said that this drink is good for those who are dieting. The rosmarinic acid contained in shiso suppresses the digestion and absorption of sugar and fat and it prevents the rise of blood sugar, however, this syrup does contain sugar so drinking too much is not a good idea," she said in a recent post on her blog, Chopstick Chronicles. This recipe begins by making a concentrated syrup from shiso, and we suspect that our clever customers are thinking about vodka bevvies right now.

Freakishly Good Japanese-Style Shiso Pesto:  Darya Rose from Summer Tomato does a fantastic job explaining why this herb's flavors work so well with this recipe, which by the way really is freaking delicious.

Pickled Ginger: This recipe doesn't specifically mention shiso, possibly because it's so hard to find and many people just aren't "in the know," but in Japan, shiso is a traditional ingredient for this seafood palate cleanser. Just add some freshly-crushed leaves into the mix for natural coloring and flavor.

Stuffed, Pan-Fried Perilla Leaves: Here's a tasty Korean appetizer from Maangchi. Choose beef, pork, or your favorite meat (or tofu) filling. You should be able to find most everything else on the list of ingredients in your pantry or at your local white-bread grocery chain.  

Shiso In Demand as a Market Garden Herb

Every once in a while, we drop a hint or two for small-scale producers who are looking for niche veggies. Shiso fits the bill! It's hard to find, even in Asian markets. This scarcity translates to top dollar earnings for shiso greens...or reds.

If you market yourself as a shiso grower, foodies will stalk your farm stand and fight over the honor of being your produce customer on behalf of their restaurants and specialty markets.

Shiso Fresh!

If you've been following our blog, you're well-aware that this is when we tell you how important freshness and good genetics are to seed quality and successful germination. What we can't tell you enough is how much we value and appreciate our loyal customers. We're a family of Michiganders who've been doing this for twelve years now, filling your orders by hand from just enough stock as we expect to sell in a single season.

Once in a while, we unshackle our grandparents and kids from their workbenches and we all go out to enjoy our own gardens, but it's just as rewarding to hear about yours. We welcome your feedback, and hope you trust your garden to Seed Needs!


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