Do you know the difference between Betel Leaf and Piper Betel? Find out in this Betel Leaf Plant Growing Guide with culinary and cocktail uses.
The Betel Leaf plant is an edible and attractive ornamental addition to the home garden. The king of the canapé and appetiser world, its shiny green edible leaves are used to wrap delicious morsels of food. Ahead, how to grow the betel leaf plant, use it in cooking and cocktails.
But first let’s clear up some confusion.
Differences Between Betel Leaf and Piper Betel
Betel Leaf (Piper Sarmentosum) is often confused with Betel Pepper (Piper Betle). In some cases, they are wrongly mentioned interchangeably but while they make look similar, they’re different plants and have very different uses.
If you’re considering buying a plant, make sure you buy the right one. Some suppliers such as Renaissance Herbs have both varieties available, and in the spirit of not repeating the mistake I made buying the Curry Plant (ornamental) when I was after a Curry Tree (edible), I did some research on the main differences between betel leaf and piper betel. Here they are summarised in table format:
|Name||Betel Leaf||Piper Betel|
|Latin name||Piper Sarmentosum||Piper Betle|
|Other names||Betel Leaf, Piper Betel Leaf, Wild Betel, La lot Pepper, Wild Pepper Leaf, bai cha plu (Thai)||Betel Pepper, Piper betel leaf plant, bai plu (Thai)|
|Main uses||Edible leaves, used for cooking and wrapping food such as in Miang Kam||chewing herb (part of a Betel Quid with Areca palm seed and spices), medicinal herb, numbs tongue, a mild stimulant, rarely used in cooking|
|Plant Size||Medium shrub with an upright habit and creeping rhizomes; grows to 70cm high and 40cm wide.||Climbing shrub with green leaves; grows to 1.5m high and 40cm wide|
|Position||Part to full sun, frost sensitive; Prefers rich opens soils in a warm position with filtered light.||Part to filtered sun, frost sensitive Prefers rich open soils in a warm position with filtered light and a pole or trellis to climb on.|
|Leaves||Heart-shaped leaves with pungent oil glands on the upper side. Leaves are smaller, thinner, more tender and have more veins; pungent and spicy in flavour with a more delicate texture than P. betel||Leaves much larger, thicker, tougher, leathery, smoother.|
|Harvest months||December to May||December to May|
How to Grow Betel Leaf
Betel Leaf is usually grown from a cutting or root division, not from seed. It can be grown in ground as well as in containers and hanging baskets.
Growing the plant is not difficult if you have the right conditions. The frost-sensitive plant favours rich, well-draining soil and a position that enjoys partial shade or filtered sunlight. It grows to 70 cm high and 40 cm wide. I bought a little plant in January and in the height of Sydney summer, I kept it well-watered under a table that received indirect sunlight for most of the day. It thrived and grew healthy, large deep green leaves.
Propagation and Growing Requirements
Aside from partial shade or filtered light and moist soil, the plant is low maintenance. Feed it with liquid fertiliser once a fortnight during the growing phase and harvest regularly.
As it is native to Asia, it thrives in warm climates. I’ll be attempting to keep it growing over winter by moving it to a warmer and sheltered position in the garden.
Spring is the time to take cuttings and propagate. Take a stem that is 15 cm long by snipping it at 45 degrees below a leaf node. Remove all the leaves leaving two or three at the top, root it in water or plant it directly in soil under a cloche.
When my plant started to grow long suckers, I took a cutting in autumn and put it in soil. Hopefully it’s not too cold for it to develop roots.
Betel leaves can be harvested from December to May by snipping the outer and larger leaves with secateurs. It’s best to leave the smaller leaves to develop and grow. Harvest the leaves regularly to promote new growth. They are at their best when they’re a vibrant green with a waxy sheen.
Culinary Uses of Betel Leaf
Betel leaves are common in Southeast Asian cuisine. They have a spicy flavour and are used in a variety of ways. The leaves can be eaten raw or cooked, in stir fry and can be used to wrap food as in the popular Miang Kam, little bite wrap snacks. The leaves can also be used as a base for decorating platters where food is arranged on top.
The above photo was taken from a visit to North Bondi Fish restaurant and originally published on our sister website, Gourmantic.
Betel Leaf in Cocktails
While the betel leaf plant has more culinary than cocktail application, its peppery flavour invites experimentation. It complements gin, vodka, white rum and cachaça. It can be used instead of mint in a Mojito, and as a cocktail garnish in Asian-inspired drinks. My tip is to take inspiration from the kitchen uses of betel leaf and develop a cocktail based around that flavour.
BETEL LEAF GROWING GUIDE AT A GLANCE
For temperate climate (Sydney, Australia)
- Sowing Season: spring and summer for propagation
- Sowing Method: cutting or root division
- Position: partial shade or filtered sunlight
- Seed Preparation: n/a
- Soil: rich, slightly acidic, slightly damp but not waterlogged, well-draining soil
- Sowing Depth: n/a
- Plant Spacing: 60 to 100cm
- Row Spacing: 50cm
- Plant Height: 70-100cm
- Germination: n/a
- Time to Maturity/Harvest: n/a
- Water Requirements: regular watering
- Fertiliser Requirements: nitrogen rich fertiliser during growth period
- Companion Planting: n/a
- Ones to Avoid: n/a
- Succession Planting: n/a
If you’re looking for a shade-loving and edible plant that’s low maintenance and can double up as an attractive ornamental, give the Betel Leaf plant a go.
Want to Know More?
You’ll find more information on how to grow 50 botanicals, which varieties to try, how to pair them with food and spirits, and how to use them in cocktails including a full recipe in my 260+ page digital book GROW YOUR OWN COCKTAIL GARDEN available now.