The shiso plant (also known as perilla, Chinese basil, beefsteak plant, and purple mint) is a member of the mint family. This wonderful plant is found in cuisines all over the world including in India, China, Japan, Korea, and Thailand. If you love sushi, you’re no doubt familiar with this delicious herb. No wonder more and more people are growing shiso.
Whether you’re a huge fan of shiso already and you’re ready to grow your own now, or you’re new to the wonderful world of perilla, this guide will help you make the most of this delicious staple.
What Is Shiso?
Shiso (Perilla frutescens var. crispa) is one of the most commonly used herbs in Japanese cuisine, though it’s also incredibly popular across the rest of Asia. You might not have heard the name shiso (which is a very recent name), but rather its other common name perilla or wild basil. Shiso is pronounced “she-sow.”
It’s also sometimes called rattlesnake weed in the eastern US because it makes a rattling sound when disturbed in the fall after it has formed seeds. In Japan, it is called Ohba, which means big leaf.
It originated in India and China before spreading across the rest of Asia. Today, it is cultivated across the world and is even considered a weed or invasive species in some places. That should come as no surprise given the fact that perilla is part of the mint family, which has a reputation for spreading unchecked.
Part of the reason it has become so popular is that you can use it in a variety of meals and drinks, as it has a unique flavor that is a mix of basil, cinnamon, anise, tarragon, and mint. It’s extremely popular in sushi restaurants where it is often used as a garnish.
The leaves are slightly fuzzy and have a wavy edge.
But the appeal doesn’t stop there. Are you someone who likes making a nice cocktail when the weekend arrives? A fan of bright, strong flavors in your salad? Want something to jazz up your sandwich? Shisho is the perfect thing.
Note that this plant is toxic to some livestock, so don’t grow it anywhere that your livestock might graze.
Varieties of Shiso
There are several forms of shiso that you can find. They taste somewhat similar, but they have different coloring.
You guessed it, this has leaves that are completely green. It has a fresher flavor than the red type. You can use green shiso to garnish dishes, season, or sprinkle into a mojito. In addition to using the leaves, you can also use the seed pods to make tempura.
This form of shiso is spicier and more bitter than the green type. It comes in varieties that are completely purple, red, or a combination of red, purple, and green.
The red shiso plant is used to make pickled plums, and some people prefer it blanched before eating it, though it is just as delicious raw.
The shiso plant is quite simple to grow from seed and seeds are widely available at most garden stores, online, or at Asian markets. For instance, you can grab a set of red and green seed packets at Amazon. Seeds can be started indoors and moved outside, kept in containers, or planted directly in the soil. You can even try growing shiso indoors so long as you have lots of direct sunlight or supplemental grow lights.
Let the seeds soak in water for 24 hours before planting them. Then, place them in a seeding tray so that they’re about 1/8 inch deep in a seeding medium. Spray the medium well with a spray bottle to moisten it. Keep the medium moist as the seeds germinate, which takes about a week.
To avoid letting your seeds dry out you can place a sheet of newspaper over the top of the container. Ideally, the newspaper should be slightly moist as that will prevent the seeds from becoming dry. Remove the paper once the leaves emerge from the soil.
Planting in Containers
To grow shiso in containers, you need to use a pot that’s big enough. For example, a box that is 6 inches deep and 8 inches wide should be perfect for growing shiso. Of course, you’ll need something twice the size if you want to grow two plants. Fill the container with a potting medium and sprinkle the seeds on top. Cover with 1/8 inch of soil.
Again, you can use moistened newspaper to keep the seeds moist as they germinate. Place the container in a spot where it will receive about six hours of sun per day.
Planting in Soil
You can also start them directly outdoors after the threat of frost has passed. The most suitable place to plant shiso is in full sunlight or light shade.
You want to make sure that the soil is rich and well-drained with a pH of 5.5 and 6.5. Add lots of well-rotted compost to the soil and plant the seeds 1/8 inch deep.
If you plan on planting numerous shiso plants then leave 10-12 inches between them. Keep the soil moist as the seeds germinate.
Caring for Shiso
Just like with most plants, you should make sure not to overwater shiso. To ensure that the soil is moist enough, you need to check in on the plant every day or so and add water if the soil feels dry an inch below the surface.
Shiso doesn’t require a lot of fertilizer since you harvest the leaves just a few months after planting. All you need to do is side-dress with compost.
Make sure the plants receive about six hours of sun a day and trim away any yellowing or brown leaves. Shiso is happiest growing in sun except for the hottest part of the day in the afternoon.
Common Pests and Diseases
Perilla is rarely bothered by pests and diseases, but that doesn’t mean it’s entirely immune from problems. If you provide the plant with the conditions it prefers, you’ll likely never run into problems. But here are the pests and diseases you might come across.
The list of plants that aren’t attacked by aphids is pretty short. Aphids suck the sap out of aphid plants, causing the leaves to turn yellow. For more tips on how to identify and stop aphids, head to our guide.
Noticing little shotholes in your shiso leaves? You likely have flea beetles. Learn more about this tiny pest in our guide.
Spider mites are extremely common. They’re extremely small arachnids that feed on the sap of plants. You’ll probably notice webbing on your perilla before you notice the insects themselves, because they’re tiny. Our guide helps you identify and get rid of them.
Bacterial wilt is caused by the bacteria Erwinia tracheiphila. It results in your plant wilting during the heat of the day and then perking back up at night, regardless of how much moisture is in the soil. Eventually, the leaves will turn mushy and rotten. If you cut the stem of the plant, it will have an oozing sap inside.
There is no cure, so pull the plants and start over. Don’t plant anything in the mint or cucurbit family in the same place for at least five years.
If your young seedlings suddenly wilt and die or your seeds never germinate at all, you might have damping off. To learn more about this common problem, our article has lots more information.
The disease downy mildew is caused by the oomycete Peronospora lamii. It causes a gray fuzz to form on the undersides of leaves and stems. It thrives in moist, cool weather. A copper fungicide treatment can help you stop this disease in its tracks.
Rust causes red pustules to form on the leaves and stem of the plant. To learn how to identify and stop this fungal disease, head on over to our guide.
Harvesting and Using Shiso
Now comes to the best part of growing shiso!
The leaves on shiso can be harvested any time they reach the size you desire. Just snip the leaves off with a pair of scissors as you need them. Once the flowers start to form, the leaves become tough and bitter, so pinch any flowers that form. Toward the end of the season, you can allow the flowers to form and they’re edible as well.
You can use the shiso leaves to make a syrup or a dessert called granita. As well as this you can dry it and use it for seasoning soups, omelets, and rice. Have you heard of the snack shiso maki? For this snack, you wrap shiso leaves around a sweet miso paste and other ingredients like eggplant.
Once you have a collection of shiso leaves you can store them in your refrigerator so they’re fresh and crisp for future use. Wrap the leaves in a paper towel and place them in a plastic bag in the crisper drawer of your fridge. Don’t leave them out in the open or they will dry out.
If you keep them in the right conditions you can keep shiso leaves for a few days. However, if you dry them you can store them for much longer and if you freeze them you can use them for months!
Health Benefits of the Shiso Plant
Not only is this plant a delicious herb but it comes with fantastic health benefits. In Asia, the shiso plant is used in teas because of its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties which makes it ideal for fighting infections and boosting your immune system.
The leaves also have health benefits to your skin as well. Plus, it contains large amounts of calcium and iron which make a diet-friendly choice for adding more nutrients to your salads and stews. It is also said that the shiso plant is rich in vitamin A which can help fight against cancer.
Shiso oil can also be used as an alternative to fish oil as it contains the same omega-3 fatty acids.