Wild Shiso “Gorilla Gardening”
by Cynthia Briscoe
My friend, Cynthia Vann, inspired the following plot, actually two plots. The first is a lush plot: a plot of shiso. And secondly, is a totally different kind of plot, a plot to counter pharmaceuticals. The guerilla gardener in me stirred and then with hairy knuckles began beating her chest and bellowing out a mighty Tarzan yodel.
You might ask how Cynthia Vann inspired such a response. Cynthia Vann is a longtime friend, cookbook author, and currently a student in our Healing Chef Training Training Course. One of the course projects is to research a
macrobiotic food product and share the results with the
class. She chose to research shiso and sent a photo of her successful garden bed of purple shiso.
I must admit that I was a little jealous of her shiso success, as many of my attempts to grow shiso in our tiny yard have been thwarted by the searing summers of northern California.
My shiso plants have been small, and they bolt when the heat hits triple digits shortly into the growing season. Every year I have big dreams and high hopes for lush shiso plants. Each year I learn a new gardening lesson in growing shiso here in the Sacramento Valley.
Two years ago I had semi success when another friend, Keiko, gave me some 6-inch shiso plants from her yard, both the purple and the green varieties. The plants grew large enough to supply shiso for some meals, but not enough to add to the large crocks of umeboshi in the basement longing for purple shiso. (Purple shiso is what gives the umeboshi its red color.) These plants grew nicely during our short spring, but as soon as the heat turned up, the plants bolted, flowered and busied themselves producing seeds. The leaves grew tough and not viable to add to the umeboshi.
I saved seeds and tried again the next spring. Zillions of baby shiso “dicot” sprouts sprouted. However, when I checked them the next morning, there were none to be found! What happened?
Like a good detective, I followed nearby pearlescent slimy trails to discover fat, satiated snails and slugs snoozing during the day in beds of shady vegetation. These ravenous, nocturnal stealth-grazers had acquired a gastronomical affinity for the complex flavor bouquet shiso offers with its bright minty/anise flavor. I couldn’t fault them for their good taste.
I tried all kinds of snail foils – buried cans filled with stale beer, upside down flowerpots covering the baby shiso, and diatomaceous earth. I even had neighbors saving eggshells to crumble and surround plant perimeters. I began a campaign to catch and release buckets of snails collected during flashlight night patrols or after a rain.
All these snail foils foiled. The snails tunneled under flowerpots, even when weighted with rocks on top. This was a lot of work because the pots would have to be removed during the day and replaced at night. I cut the tops off plastic pots thinking to avert their tunneling and pushed the pots deep into the soil. These acrobatic snails still managed to infiltrate.
Eggshells and diatomaceous earth did not deter them. Relocating buckets of snails was not enough to counter their fertile reproduction. Maybe they were just extra healthy snails due to consumption of shiso!
Here are some of the impressive health-giving qualities Cynthia Vann noted in her research. As you can see, shiso is a valuable medicinal food.
When David and I lived in Kansas City before moving to California, Herman and Cornellia Aihara would come to Kansas City to teach and stay in our home. One morning, very early I went outside to find Cornellia with the cuffs of her Japanese trousers rolled up higher than the dew-ladened vegetation. She was happily picking a bouquet of something from one of the wooded areas of our yard.
She was very excited and thrusted the plants toward my nose, shouting, “Shiso! Shiso! Lots of!” I had never heard of shiso. My first taste of shiso was what Cornellia served with breakfast that morning. She placed a small bit of white miso in the center of a shiso leaf and deftly bundled it into a neat little package. Then she sautéed the bundles to be eaten with bites of rice. So yummy!
Here we had about a half-acre of shiso growing. I had walked over the plants for many years, because I had grown up in that house, as had my mother. But where did the shiso come from? If my grandfather had planted it, my mother would have taught me about it, as she loved to do with every other plant and tree on the property.
Then someone told me that the many Chinese workers who had helped build railroads often planted, or scattered seeds along the railways to insure the availability of fresh shiso for their use. Indeed there was an abandoned railroad rite-of-way that traversed one side of the property. How amazing! This railroad was put in around the turn of the century and the shiso still lived on, having reseeded themselves after nearly a century.
Last summer, I visited a dear friend who lives in a rural area 35 miles from Kansas City, near a small town named Tonganoxie. One day we went for a walk in the town park, as she wanted to know if I could identify a plant growing wild there. Lo and behold, it was shiso! The same rail line that once ran through my family’s property also continued on to run through Tonganoxie.
Carol and I were both deeply impressed by the generational longevity of this plant with its quiet and determined strength to survive. The local rail line that once connected the dots of small rural towns surrounding Kansas City, Kansas for travelers to conduct business, visit relatives on the farm, or just go for a picnic in the countryside was long gone. A few curious linear segments of mounded earth that once supported timbered ties and steel rails and where coal cinders still wash up to the surface, remain in undeveloped areas such as our old home or the park in Tonganoxie. “Stronger than a steam-powered locomotive”, these surviving naturalized colonies of shiso plants bear witness, connecting the dots of history and this plant’s connection to humans. Perhaps that is why Asian culture also attributes this plant to longevity along with appreciation for its healthful qualities and culinary value.
So when, Cynthia Vann offered to send me a package containing thousands of seeds from her shiso, it inspired the two-pronged plot mentioned earlier. To fulfill the first plot of growing shiso locally, I can now grow shiso in my garden to my hearts content…and even have enough for the snails to enjoy! And like the Chinese railworkers of bygone days, I’ll distribute some seeds along the railroad tracks or along the riverbanks here in Oroville. Then, if someone suffers a headache, nausea or food poisoning, they can simply take a walk along the river and pick their ‘food medicine’ and cook it up in a delicious meal. Thus, the second plot, the one to counter the pharmaceutical industry, might also succeed.