Round Robin: Exasperating Perilla Frutescens

LANSING, New York–Was there ever such an exasperating plant as perilla? Ever a plant so determinedly, so single-mindedly, so frantically bent on procreation? It seeds itself into the center of every perennial in the garden, into pots of geraniums, and in the cracks between bricks and flagstones. How shamefully fecund it is, yet how useful!

I’m referring to the annual herb Perilla frutescens, native to Japan, China, and India–or I think I am. The perilla I grow is a 2- to 4-foot plant with large, ovate, tapered, toothed, corrugated, pungent opposite leaves that are of an almost indescribable color: like dregs of Chianti with a grayish overtone due to almost invisible white hairs. The colorless flowers in square spikes are negligible. In going through the books to make sure I have the name right, I found the usual muddle of experts differing and leaving me thoroughly confused. Apparently P. frutescens comes in both green and purple forms, with both smooth and ruffled leaves, but each reference has a different opinion on how to name them. I’ll just say that mine is the one with dark gray-bronzy-purple, nonshiny, nonruffled leaves.

The leaves begin to turn green as the plant makes flowers and seeds, but one can slow this process by constantly cutting them back. The leaves and seeds of perilla have been used for centuries in the Orient, especially in Japan, as an important cooking herb–in tempura, in sauces and salads, and pickled, to add flavor to fish, bean curd, and vegetables. Some people compare its odor and taste to that of cinnamon, but that’s only one element. It’s cinnamon and lots of other scents put together. Like the color, it’s indescribable.

In the Little Golden Guide to Herbs and Spices, now unfortunately out of print, I read that the volatile oil of perilla is used to flavor candy, toothpaste, and perfumes and that perillaldehyde, derived from the oil, is 2000 times sweeter than sucrose and 4 to 8 times sweeter than saccharin. It’s used to sweeten, of all things, tobacco. The seeds yield a drying oil that is used in paints, varnishes, enamels, and linoleum. You have to admit that it’s a useful plant.

My daughter makes and shares with me a delectable perilla vinegar, but I use the plant chiefly to lower the visual temperature in my hot-colored garden. Occurring here and there among the incendiary colors of the flowers (orange, vermilion, flaming red, and strong yellow) it makes cool places where the eye can rest and combines deliciously with the textures and hues of the other plants. You should see it with Gaillardia ‘Red Plume’ or with orange Mandarin calendulas. I do have many other purple-foliaged plants in the garden–dahlias, basils, and so on–but the matte finish of perilla seems to provide the perfect foil for the gleaming petals of the flowers. Perhaps the best example of mutual cooperation for visual delight I’ve ever seen was a group of chocolate cosmos (Cosmos atrosanguineus) backed by the textured leaves of perilla, whose dull, dark, smoky purple echoed as it glorified the glowing satin petals of the cosmos.