HOJA SANTA, ACUYO, MOMO: Is a shrub with large (to 10″ across) heart shaped, rootbeer-flavored leaves containing safrole. It has long, narrow, phallic white flowers and is probably the easiest to grow of the commonly available Piper family.

Hoja Santa is used in Mexico culinarily and medicinally (gynecologically). The leaves and stems are reported to be used popularly as a treatment for susto (fright). While down in Chiapas, Mexico, I had the opportunity to see these plants in their native habitat and to eat fish prepared with the leaves. The plants grow very large, resembling trees, and the fish (wrapped similar to a tamale and steamed) was good. The leaves are also added to meat stews. Can grow as a potted plant in rich, moist soil in part shade.

For decades botanists have pondered the popular name of this plant, translated as “Holy Leaf.” Most “Holy” plants have some drug value or some special sacramental or medicinal value. Piper auritum has none of these.

As a working ethnobotanist in Mexico, I think I’ve discovered the source of the nomenclature. One night I was sitting in a small hotel bathroom in Oaxaca and I noticed a new roll of toilet paper sitting on the back of the toilet tank. On the wrapping was the description of the contents, “230 Hojas.”

The large, soft, pleasantly scented, velvety leaves of this plant make perfect toilet paper. “Sacred” toilet paper, to some. The mystery is solved.