Shiso is an increasingly popular Japanese herb that is creeping into dishes around the world. Like many herbs, it’s best eaten fresh.
Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to grow shiso at home, and with a few tips and tricks, you can have an endless supply!
Our experts explain the differences between the many varieties in this guide, review the ideal growing conditions, and discuss the health benefits and cooking techniques that reveal shiso’s unique flavor.
Let’s get started.
What is shiso?
The most common name comes from Japanese: shiso (written as either 紫蘇 or シソ). You will also find it under English versions such as perilla mint, Chinese basil, Japanese Perilla, or beefsteak plant — sometimes mistakenly called ‘breakfast plant.’
Where does shiso grow?
Shiso is native to India and China, where it grows wild in mountainous regions. Due to its easy growing requirements and unique taste, it is a cultivated herb throughout many Asian regions, and it’s become an essential ingredient in many authentic dishes. Japan is one of the leading producers of shiso. However, you can find it grown in many parts of the world.
This perennial plant can grow to a height ranging from 16 to 39 inches (40 to 100cm), producing small, inconspicuous flowers and mint-like leaves. Its foliage can vary in color, from green to red, purple, or bicolor. In fact, there are several varieties of shiso, depending on the coloration.
Let’s take a quick look at some of the most common varieties of shiso.
There are three main varieties of shiso, based on the colors of their leaves.
- Red shiso: produces broad, oval-shaped leaves, with a deep burgundy or magenta color on the leaves, stalks and stems; the flowers are small and either pink or purple;
- Green shiso: the leaves have the same shape as red shiso, but are a vivid green color; flowers are small and white;
- Bicolor shiso: the best of both worlds, this variety of shiso has leaves that are bright green on the top, and a deep purple on the bottom.
Both red and green shiso have ruffled varieties, where the leaves are slightly crumpled or ruffled. The red shiso cultivars are the most eye-catching and can also be planted as an ornamental shrub, similar to coleus.
When it comes to flavor, all shiso varieties are mostly the same, although green shiso has a more intense aroma and is the variety primarily used in Asian-style cooking.
Is shiso the same as Perilla?
There are two primary varieties of Perilla you will come across:
- Japanese perilla, or shiso (Perilla frutescens var. crispa)
- Korean perilla (P. frutescens var. frutescens)
In Japan, where shiso is far more popular, the Korean version is called ‘egoma’, which translates to ‘sesame perilla.’ Meanwhile, Koreans refer to it as “deulkkae,” which means “wild sesame,” and use “ggaetnip” or “soyeop” to refer to Japanese shiso.
What are the differences between Japanese and Korean Perilla?
You will often find both Korean and Japanese varieties referred to only by their genus name, Perilla. This can be a bit confusing if you’re starting your journey into the world of Asian herbs and their unique flavors. Luckily, some differences will help you tell them apart.
Shiso produces smaller leaves than the Korean variety, and it has a more pronounced minty flavor. Korean Perilla has larger, rounded leaves, whereas shiso typically has serrated edges on its leaves.
What is the difference between red Perilla and purple basil?
Shiso, especially the red variety, is remarkably similar in appearance to purple basil, so it can be easy to confuse the two plants. The two belong to different families: shiso is a type of mint, while purple basil is, well, a type of basil.
The easiest way to tell red Perilla and purple basil apart is by looking at the leaves. In red Perilla, the leaves often have serrated edges, while purple basil has rounded ones. You can also tell them apart by taste: shiso has a unique aromatic flavor, similar to mint, with a hint of cilantro and spices like cinnamon and anise, and a bitter finish. Meanwhile, purple basil has the unmistakable taste of basil.
How to grow shiso
Let’s start with the basics.
What type of shiso should you plant?
There are three main types of shiso: red, green, and bicolor. All three of them are edible, but their uses are slightly different. Green shiso is the most popular variety used in Asian cooking, and its leaves can also be eaten raw.
Red shiso is also edible, but it needs to be cooked beforehand, and it’s often used as a food dye in dishes such as umeboshi (traditional Japanese pickled plums). Both red and bicolor shiso has gorgeously colored leaves, which is why they can also be used for ornamental purposes.
When buying shiso seeds, always use a respectable vendor, and make sure you purchase the genuine stuff. Often, shiso and its Korean cousin are sold under the name of ‘perilla,’ or even the name of beefsteak plant.
Given the fact that they taste different, you should be careful of which variety you buy. Read the seed information carefully and make sure that it mentions shiso, Japanese Perilla, or even better, the plant’s Latin name: Perilla frutescens var. crispa.
How to germinate shiso seeds
Shiso can be a low maintenance crop once it’s sprouted, but getting the seeds to germinate can be a bit tricky. Several factors can cause failure to grow, but mainly it’s the result of seed dormancy.
The main reason for buying seeds from a reputable vendor is that shiso seeds become dormant after harvesting. The dormancy period can last for up to 2 years, which means that they will not germinate if you sow them too soon.
Most home gardeners can’t tell whether the seeds are dormant or not, which is why buying them from a trusted source is a must. If you’re not sure if your seeds are dormant or not, you can store them in your refrigerator at temperatures between 35°F to 45°F (2°C to 7°C) for 1 to 3 months before sowing.
– Preparation tips
Shiso seeds are very tough and can take a while to get going. To germinate them, we recommend soaking them in water for 24 hours before sowing. Spread them out between two kitchen roll layers and mist the paper regularly with a water spray pump. Keep them in a warm place overnight.
Another recommendation is germinating shiso seeds indoors rather than sowing them outside directly. Shiso is not frost hardy, and low temperatures can either prevent sprouting or prolong germination by almost a month. To save some time, sow your pre-soaked shiso seeds in compostable seed starter trays. Cover them with a very light layer of soil, and use a spray pump to water them gently.
– How long do shiso seeds take to germinate?
You should see the first shiso seedlings make an appearance after a week or so. Once the plants have two sets of leaves each, and outdoor temperatures stay above 45°F (7°C) during the night, you can transplant them outside.
Growing shiso outdoors
The hardest part about growing shiso is germinating the seeds. Once you get past that first step, everything else is plain sailing.
– Soil and location
Shiso is unpretentious when it comes to soil and will grow in well-draining, average soils, with a pH ranging from 5.5 to 6.5. Pick a part of your garden that gets plenty of light. Six hours of direct sun is ideal, although shiso can also grow in partial shade. Plant the seedlings 12 inches (30 cm) apart and make sure to keep the soil moist until the plants become established. Avoid boggy or waterlogged soils, as this can make your young shiso plants susceptible to root rot and other fungal diseases.
– Fertilizer and watering
Feed your shiso plants with a liquid, organic fertilizer once a month. A fish fertilizer solution works best. Water your plants regularly, but don’t worry too much about missing a day or two. Shiso can be quite tolerant to drought.
– Caring for your shiso plant
Luckily, shiso doesn’t have too many problems, and it’s very resistant to pests and diseases. Snails and slugs might pay the plant a visit to chew on the leaves, yet they are easy to remove by hand.
Towards the end of summer, shiso plants will start producing flowers. Although the flowers are edible, they are not as tasty as the leaves, so we recommend snipping them off. This will also prolong the plant’s life and encourage it to produce more leaves.
– Is shiso a perennial plant?
In its native habitat, especially in Japan, shiso grows as a perennial plant. However, if you’re growing it in a temperate climate, especially in areas that get cold, freezing winters, you can only grow shiso as an annual plant. Once winter hits, shiso is unlikely to come back, but if you’ve allowed it to flower and produce seeds, maybe you’ll get new plants the following year.
– Growing shiso in winter
If you want to grow shiso in winter, the only way to do so is indoors. Shiso is easy to grow as a houseplant, in pots or containers. It’s unpretentious and easy to care for, but growing indoors in winter makes sure that it gets plenty of light. Otherwise, it can become leggy.
When to harvest shiso?
You can start harvesting shiso leaves when the plant is 8 inches (20 cm) or taller. Snip off the leaves as and when needed. Regular harvesting will also encourage the plant to become bushier, especially if you pinch the stem tips.
You can store shiso leaves in the vegetable drawer of your fridge for up to a week, but the leaves will start to wilt and lose their aroma over time. If you keep them for too long, especially in damp conditions, the leaves will begin developing soft, black spots.
This is why we recommend eating shiso fresh, as soon as it’s been harvested.
Is beefsteak plant invasive?
Beefsteak plants are a particular threat, often outcompeting native flora. It’s also toxic to wildlife, which is why deer and other animals very rarely eat it. Given that it can easily escape cultivation, it is considered a weed or invasive plant, and planting it is not encouraged in many parts of the United States.
Does this mean that you shouldn’t plant shiso in your garden? Not necessarily. Although shiso and beefsteak plants are related, shiso is far less rampant in its spread.
The best way to keep it under control is to prevent it from producing seeds. To do that, remove the flower heads once they start wilting. This way, you can also encourage the plant to spend more of its energy producing new, tasty leaves.
Uses for shiso or tia to
What does shiso taste like?
Shiso is a uniquely flavorful herb used in Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean, and other Asian dishes. The leaves have a distinct minty taste, with a hint of cinnamon, clove, cilantro, a touch of basil earthiness, and a mild bitter finish. They also contain a chemical compound called perillartine (or perilla sugar), which is 2,000 times sweeter than sucrose. However, you’re not likely to taste it when eating the leaves.
Medicinal uses for shiso
The leaves of shiso have many health benefits. They are rich in antioxidants, calcium, iron, vitamin A and C, and omega-3 fatty acids.
In traditional Chinese medicine, shiso is used as an anti-inflammatory herb to relieve coughs or asthma symptoms and gastrointestinal ailments such as nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. The leaves also have antibacterial properties, so they are often used for skin conditions, such as eczema.
What can you cook with shiso?
Shiso is a prized herb, especially in Japan, where it has numerous uses in cooking. The Japanese love their shiso so much that Pepsi released a green-coloured, shiso flavored, limited edition of its fizzy drink, called Pepsi Shiso.
How to cook with shiso
Shiso is the perfect companion for Japanese dishes. Depending on the variety, the leaves can be eaten either raw or cooked.
Green shiso is especially popular in cooking, and it’s a very versatile herb. You can use it in sushi rolls or garnish sashimi, fry it in a tempura batter, add it to miso soups, or eat it raw in salads.
Red shiso is mostly used in pickles such as umeboshi or dried and used as a spice in making onigiri (rice balls).
Shiso or tia to?
Shiso is also popular among Vietnamese herbs, under the name of tia to. The main difference from Japanese shiso is that the variety used in Vietnam is bicolor, with green leaves on the top and red on the bottom and stems. The uses are much the same, and you can pair it with Vietnamese soups, stir-fries, and fish or seafood dishes.
In Korea, shiso is not as common because kkaennip (the leaves of Korean Perilla) is a more popular choice. One way to enjoy shiso the Korean way is to make a kimchi-style pickle, using red shiso leaf, ginger, garlic, fish oil, and chillies. If you can find shiso oil, you can use its nutty aroma to add an entirely new dimension to your dishes.
Is shiso better fresh or dried?
To make the most out of shiso’s authentic flavor, we suggest using it as a fresh herb.
The green leaves can be used as a substitute for mint or basil, from salads to garnishes in soft drinks and cocktails. Or, for something truly out of this world, you can also use them to make shiso pesto.
On the other hand, dried leaves can make tea, while the seeds can be sprinkled on salads or turned into oil.
Can you eat raw shiso leaves?
Yes, but only green shiso leaves can be eaten raw. Red shiso has a noticeable bitterness and astringency, and it’s always cooked. In Japan, red shiso is mostly used as a food dye, rice seasoning (furikake), or a touch of tartness to pickles. The leaves can also be boiled, then mixed with sugar and citric acid to create a refreshing summer drink called shiso juice.
Shiso not only looks great but offers a unique flavor that can bring life to a wide array of dishes. It’s reasonably easy to grow indoors and out, making it a great addition to your garden.
Let’s go over the basics.
- There is 3 main shiso; green, red, and bicolor, and the plant goes by many other local names.
- Shiso also has several close cousins that look similar but offer a very different taste. Look for Perilla frutescens var. Crispa or Japanese Perilla.
- Germinating shiso is the most challenging part, and seeds can become dormant for up to 2 years — always buy your seeds from reputable sellers!
- It’s best to germinate shiso seeds inside before planting outside when there’s no more chance of frost.
- Shiso is an annual plant in temperate climates, though it’s possible to grow it indoors throughout the year.
- Some varieties, such as the beefsteak plant, are considered invasive in many areas, though true shiso is far less likely to spread, especially if you chop the flowers off before they start to wilt or grow indoors.
Now that you know the basics, it’s time to plant your shiso!