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Hoja santa
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
(unranked): Angiosperms
(unranked): Magnoliids
Order: Piperales
Family: Piperaceae
Genus: Piper
Species: P. auritum
Binomial name
Piper auritum

Piper sanctum[1]

Hoja santa (Piper auritum) is an aromatic herb with a heart-shaped, velvety leaf which grows in tropic Mesoamerica. The name hoja santa means "sacred leaf" in Spanish.[2] A Mexican legend says that Virgin Mary dried diapers of the infant Jesus on the bush of this plant, hence the name.[3] It is also known as yerba santa,[4][5] hierba santa,[4] Mexican pepperleaf,[5] root beer plant,[2] and sacred pepper.[1]


The leaves can reach up to 30 centimeters (12 in) or more in size. The complex flavor of hoja santa is not so easily described; it has been compared to eucalyptus,[6][7] licorice,[2][8] sassafras,[4][9] anise,[5][10] nutmeg,[5] mint,[11][12] tarragon,[6] and black pepper.[5] The flavor is stronger in the young stems and veins.

It is native to the Americas, from northern South America to Mexico, and has escaped cultivation in Florida.[13]


It is often used in Mexican cuisine for tamales, the fish or meat wrapped in fragrant leaves for cooking, and as an essential ingredient in Mole Verde, the green sauce originated in the Oaxaca region of Mexico.[4] It is also chopped to flavor soups and eggs.[14] In Central Mexico, it is used to flavor chocolate drinks.[5] In southeastern Mexico, a green liquor called Verdín is made from hoja santa.[15] American cheesemaker Paula Lambert created "Hoja santa cheese", the goat's milk cheese wrapped with the hoja santa leaves and impregnated with its flavor.[9][11] While typically used fresh, it is also used in dried form, although drying removes much of the flavor and makes the leaf too brittle to be used as a wrapper.[16]

The essential oils within the leaf are rich in safrole, a substance also found in sassafras, which has been shown to be carcinogenic in animals. In 1960, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned sassafras bark along with sassafras oil and safrole as flavoring agents because of their carcinogenic properties[14] and the Council of Europe imposed the same ban in 1974,[17] although toxicological studies show that humans do not process safrole into its carcinogenic metabolite.[18]


  1. ^ a b Barlow, Prof. Snow (2003). "Sorting Piper names". University of Melbourne. Retrieved 2007-03-29.  
  2. ^ a b c Rolland, Jacques L. (2006). The Food Encyclopedia: Over 8,000 Ingredients, Tools, Techniques and People. Robert Rose. p. 326. ISBN 0778801500.  
  3. ^ Martínez, Zarela (1995). Food from My Heart: Cuisines of Mexico Remembered and Reimagined. Wiley. pp. 8–9. ISBN 0028603613.  
  4. ^ a b c d Miller, Mark Charles (1993). Coyote's Pantry: Southwest Seasonings and at Home Flavoring Techniques. Ten Speed Press. p. 70. ISBN 0898154944.  
  5. ^ a b c d e f Katzer, Gernot (2000). "Gernot Katzer's Spice Pages - Mexican Pepperleaf (Piper auritum Kunth)". Retrieved 2007-03-29.  
  6. ^ a b "Ingredient - Hoja Santa". The Washington Post. 2004-08-18. Retrieved 2007-03-29.  
  7. ^ Pyles, Stephan (1999). New Tastes from Texas. Three Rivers Press. p. 214. ISBN 0609804979.  
  8. ^ Raichlen, Steven (2000). Steven Raichlen's Healthy Latin Cooking: 200 Sizzling Recipes from Mexico, Cuba, Caribbean, Brazil, and Beyond. Rodale Books. p. 26. ISBN 0875964982.  
  9. ^ a b Lambert, Paula (2000). The Cheese Lover's Cookbook and Guide: Over 150 Recipes with Instructions on How to Buy, Store, and Serve All Your Favorite Cheeses. Simon & Schuster. p. 43. ISBN 0684863189.  
  10. ^ Davidson, Alan (1999). The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford University Press. p. 383. ISBN 0-19-211579-0.  
  11. ^ a b Hale, Adrian J.S. (2006-09-28). "Craft, not Kraft, is the key to these homeland treats". Orlando Weekly. Retrieved 2007-03-29.  
  12. ^ Nordin, Donna (2001). Contemporary Southwest: The Cafe Terra Cotta Cookbook. Ten Speed Press. p. 19. ISBN 1580081800.  
  13. ^ "Piper auritum Kunth". Flora of North America.  
  14. ^ a b Creasy, Rosalind (2000). The Edible Mexican Garden. Tuttle Publishing. p. 35. ISBN 9625932976.  
  15. ^ Conner, Lori (2006). "El Restaurante Mexicano (May/June 2006): Beyond margaritas". Maiden Name Press LLC. Retrieved 2007-04-01.  
  16. ^ Bladholm, Linda (2001). Latin & Caribbean Grocery Stores Demystified. Renaissance Books. p. 106. ISBN 1580632122.  
  17. ^ Contis, E.T. (Ed.) (1998). Food Flavors: Formation, Analysis and Packaging Influences (Developments in Food Science). Elsevier. p. 403. ISBN 0444825908.  
  18. ^ Benedetti MS, Malnoe A, Broillet AL (Feb 1977), "Absorption, metabolism and excretion of safrole in the rat and man", Toxicology 7 (1): 69–83, PMID 14422  . "The main urinary metabolite in both species was 1,2-dihydroxy-4-allylbenzene which was excreted in a conjugated form. Small amounts of eugenol or its isomer 1-methoxy-2-hydroxy-4-allylbenzene were also detected in rat and man. 1'-Hydroxysafrole, a proximate carcinogen of safrole, and 3'-hydroxyisosafrole were detected as conjugates in the urine of the rat. However, in these investigations we were unable to demonstrate the presence of the latter metabolites in man."


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