Perilla frutescens Zi Su 紫苏

Today I will touch on the wonderful herb known as Perilla frutescens in Latin but in Chinese it is called Zi Su (紫苏). The Chinese name is a dead give away for its appearance because the character zi (紫) means purple, and in fact the leaf and stem of this plant are purple (there is also a green variety).

There are three different parts of the plant used in Chinese medicine, the leaf (zi su ye 紫苏叶), the stem (zi su geng 紫苏梗), and the seed (zi su zi 紫苏子). I won’t bore you with all the details, but the leaf is commonly used for illnesses such as the common cold as well as a number of digestive illnesses, one of which is seafood poisoning. It should be noted here that the original coloring of pickled ginger served with sushi came from this leaf in the pickling process. It is very likely that most of the pickled ginger served these days in sushi restaurants is artificially colored. The stem is primarily used to regulate qi in the digestion. It is said to be able to both move the qi up and down, so is used in formulas with other herbs to facilitate this.

I recently harvested a bit of Perilla seed from the Autumn Reine Learning Garden, which is located just north of Beijing. Although I let most of the seeds be eaten by the birds that frequent the garden, I decided to harvest some last week. In all I ended up with about 30 grams of seeds, more than enough to have a large planting this next season. The plants in the garden were nearly 2 meters tall (6 feet) and probably would have yielded 10 times that many seeds if I had harvested at the right time. But I like the idea of feeding the birds; I hope they come back to eat the bugs next year in return for such a nice gift of seeds this Fall. Perilla seed’s main function is to direct qi downward for the treatment of cough. It also disperses phlegm, so it is a common herb for me to use in formulas for coughing. Although it is considered warm, I do not consider it overly so, and thus it is safe to use in many different types of cough, but it is particularly useful when there is deficiency of the lung and spleen leading to the cough and phlegm.

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