Beefsteak Plant
Perilla frutescens
Mint family (Lamiaceae)

Description: This plant is a summer annual about 1-3' tall, branching occasionally to abundantly. The stems are usually dark burgundy (less often green), 4-angled, rather stout, and hairy. The opposite leaves are up to 5" long and 3" across; they are dark burgundy to olive green, ovate-cordate, and coarsely serrated along the margins. The upper surface of each leaf is wrinkly from the reticulated veins and hairless, or nearly so; the lower surface has raised purple veins and it is slightly pubescent. Each leaf has a slender petiole. The upper stems terminate in spike-like racemes of flowers. Each raceme is up to 6" long; it has a hairy central stalk that is olive green to dark burgundy. Each flower is about 1/8" long, consisting of a tubular calyx with 5 teeth, a short tubular corolla, a divided style, and 4 stamens with tiny purple anthers. The pale purple corolla is barely exerted from the calyx; this corolla has a short upper lip, a short lower lip, and 2 short lateral lobes. Both the upper and lower lips are shallowly notched in the middle. The calyx is olive green to burgundy and densely covered with long white hairs; its two lower teeth are longer than the 3 upper teeth. The blooming period is late summer to early autumn and it lasts about 1 month for a colony of plants. Upon achieving maturity, the flowers are replaced by finely reticulated nutlets.

Cultivation: This adaptable plant prefers full to partial sun, wet to slightly dry conditions, and grows readily in different kinds of soil, including those containing loam, sand, and gravel. The fertility of the soil and moisture conditions exert a strong influence on the size of individual plants. Most vegetative growth occurs during the summer.

Range & Habitat: The Beefsteak Plant occurs occasionally in the southern half of Illinois, while in the northern half of the state it is less common (see Distribution Map). It was introduced from East Asia into North America as a horticultural plant. Habitats include dry rocky woodlands, edges of springs, sand and gravel bars along rivers, disturbed weedy meadows, gravelly areas along railroads, edges of yards, areas near gardens, back alleys in cities, and various waste areas. This plant is often cultivated in gardens because of its attractive foliage, from which it occasionally escapes. Usually escaped populations of the Beefsteak Plant don't persist over the time, although it is apparently well-established in some areas of southern Illinois. Disturbed habitats are preferred.

Faunal Associations: Little is known about floral-faunal relationships for this species in North America. The flowers are cross-pollinated primarily by bees, which are attracted to the nectar. Thus far, I have not observed any signs of mammalian herbivores feeding on the foliage.

Photographic Location: The photograph of the flowers was taken along a back alley of Urbana, Illinois, while the photograph of the burgundy leaves was taken along an abandoned railroad in the same city.

Comments: The foliage of the Beefsteak Plant is very distinctive when it becomes deep burgundy in bright sunlight. However, its leaves are often olive green in shadier conditions. This species resembles no native plant in Illinois. However, it does resemble some introduced Coleus cultivars with dark burgundy foliage. Such cultivars usually have a narrow band of green or yellow along the leaf margins. The leaf margins of the Beefsteak Plant have large serrated teeth, while the leaf margins of Coleus cultivars tend to have smaller crenate teeth. There are also differences in the structure and shape of their flowers. Another common name for Perilla frutescens is Purple Perilla. Its leaves are used as a vegetable in the Orient.