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SEED TO SEED: KKAENNIP aka Korean Perilla

perilla frutescens var. frutescens


We love asking people what plant reminds them of home, of family, of their people. For many Koreans and Korean-Americans, that plant is kkaennip.


This domesticated species of perilla has been cultivated within Korea since the mid-Jeulmun age (around 3500-1500 BCE).  This era is considered to be a time when wild species of various plants were more formally tended to and developed within the peninsula. Other primary crops domesticated around the same time include millet, various chenopods, and adzuki beans.

This large leafed variety, as it was continually cultivated, became morphologically distinct from weedy relatives, which include Aka Shiso (the red variety of shiso, popular in Japanese cuisine), and Dol Deulkkae ("Stone Perilla" a smaller wild species  ). 


Kkaennip is also called deulkkae. Kkaennip refers to the leaves, while deulkkae usually refers to the seeds which were used as an oil crop before sesame was widely cultivated. It is still used as a cooking oil. Deulkkae literally means "wild sesame" which can cause confusion because it bears no relation to proper sesame (sesamum indicum).  It is also debated whether deulkkae and kkaennip are two distinct species of perilla. Based on some research and many conversations/debates, it seems as though while there may be distinctions in various landraces developed by farmers, where some varieties yield more seeds, or seeds with higher oil content, they are genetically the same. I did grow a variety of "white perilla" once which did seem as though it was selected for seed production, and the leaves were not as delicious. For the most part, much of the seed available for perilla will be for leaf production.


Considering this long history, it is no wonder that this plant is so truly beloved. It is distinctly beautiful and the flavor is inimitable, which is why for many Korean-Americans, it is the plant we relish being able to grow for ourselves. The good news is it's quite easy to grow, especially when you take some time to get to understand this very special plant.


Some facts to start: Kkaennip is a day length sensitive plant, meaning it grows vegetatively with the lengthening days starting around the spring equinox. When the days shorten and the nights are getting longer, it readies itself to start to flower and then develop seed. This is generally called the plant's "critical photoperiod", which marks the amount of night time hours needed to induce flowering. So, while some plants begin to flower after they have amassed enough energy to form a fruit (tomatoes), or when they are stressed and "bolting" (cilantro), kkaennip will not begin the process to shift from forming leaves to forming flowers until it has the right amount of night time hours. This typically happens around the full moon preceding the fall equinox. You will notice that instead of a new pair of leaves forming at the apical meristem of the plant, there will be a small white set of four "petals", which will extend and become a flower raceme. In addition to this, flowers will form at each axial bud. It's a lot of flowers! This is important to consider when planning your planting. You want to plant early so the kkaennip can grow as much as possible before flowering. The more vegetative growth it forms, the more surface area to photosynthesize, which means it can make vigorous seeds! It also means that this plant prefers temperate regions. In day neutral areas close to the equator, I'm not sure what will happen. 


BEST PLANTING TIME: March-May. Though it is pretty hearty, too much and too severe of frost can kill it when it's young. Here at the farm in Sunol, I seed it outdoors in early April around the Pink Moon.  You can get a head start indoors and seed it a month or so before your last frost date.



Getting started:


Prepare a nice seedbed. Kkaennip needs light to germinate, so you want your planting area to be nice and friable. If you're starting them indoors, it's best to broadcast the seed into trays (like an open 1020 tray), because it's easier to maintain an even moisture, which is critical.


Broadcast the seed on the surface. Gently tamp it in with your hand or a rake. You don't want to bury the seed too deep, but you want it to be nestled in the soil. Birds really love the seeds so take this into account! The keys to high germination are light and consistent moisture. I use a spray bottle to keep the surface moist without overly saturating the bed itself.


Ok, so your seeds have germinated! They generally take about a week to sprout. Here's what they look like when they do:



















If you are starting your seeds indoors, the best time to pot them up into larger containers before setting them in your field is when its first set of true leaves have properly formed:




















At this point, the plant is starting to photosynthesize, the roots are healthy but not too tangled, and it recovers quickly and seamlessly from transplanting. They are vigorous growers, so we give them 3" pots to get established for the next two weeks or so.


So now you have some really cute baby plants. If you seeded them directly into the bed, keep an eye out for slugs. They love kkaennip as well and can mow down a whole stand over night. Sadly, the only thing that really works on slugs is vigilance. I put beer out which is an effective trap, and only irrigate early in the morning. You can transplant seedlings into the field once two leaf sets have formed.


At this point, the plants are quite self-reliant! Most people who have had trouble growing kkaennip report having trouble with germination. which hopefully you will not have.

Its fertility requirements are not too intense. We don't even generally amend with compost, so long as your soil has sufficient organic matter content. Once the plants have four leaf sets or are about a foot and a half tall, we mulch in order to retain moisture. Water is essential. While not too fussy, inadequate moisture will cause some suffering. It's ok if the leaves droop a little at the height of the day, it's just trying to avoid transpiring water. But make sure that at the end of the day, the leaves are perked up again. If you notice sagging leaves that are starting to look wrinkly, it's definitely time to water. 


To harvest, you can either trim individual leaves from the bottom up, or trim at a node to encourage branching. A node is the point on the stem above each leaf set. In the photo below, the node is marked by a red dot. You will notice a tiny pair of leaves growing in the elbow between the stem and leaf. This is known as an axial bud. If you trim right above there, the plant will redirect energy to grow from those elbows, growing now two stems. The axial buds will take over as the primary growth point. If you seeded heavily, rather than thinning when the plants are super small, you can let them grow and then prune them back in this fashion. They don't generally suffer even when they are crowded, though it mostly causes the plant to lengthen between nodes in order to access sunlight. If the plants are given more space, they will be bushier and a little heartier. We recommend about 8" on any side between plants for optimum growth.


 So now you are enjoying your fresh kkaennip leaves and the beautiful golden glow the plants contribute to your garden. Around August, the plants will be preparing to flower in order to make seeds. At this time, you may want to reserve a few plants that you allow to grow big and stop trimming from. These plants can be for your seed stock. The key thing to think about now is which of your plants look most vigorous and display the growth habit you wish to preserve in the following generation. Does one plant strike you as particularly beautiful? Does one plant have larger leaves? Or deeper purple coloring on its undersides? Let these plants develop as much biomass as possible so that all the energy accumulated by photosynthesis can be transferred to the seed. 


One day you will notice something different happening at the apex of each plant. Instead of a baby pair of leaves forming, you will find the beginning of a flower raceme. It looks like this:


 What looks like a series of intricately folded papers will gradually extend and lengthen into a raceme of small white flowers:


 Each flower produces four seeds. The plants are generally self-fertile, but can cross with other perilla varieties. When pollination occurs, the white petals fall off, and the seed matures. If you look at the picture above you can see that the flowers mature from bottom to top. As the seed reaches maturity, the base of the flower will swell. The flowers look like little bells, and when the mouth expands, the seed has generally reached maturity. The seeds do not ripen at the same time, so you want to harvest when the majority of seeds have fully grown. We have so many birds on the farm, that once mature, we cut the plants at the base, and dry in a shaded area. This lets the seeds dry down so that we can store them. We have gotten the highest quality seed by allowing the plants to hang and dry, and then threshing them by smacking the dried plants with a stick onto a tarp or into a paper bag. This makes the driest, largest seeds fall out, leaving the less mature smaller seeds in the plant. Although you could wrangle each seed from the nutlet, harvesting seeds in this manner selects for the highest quality.


 Once threshed and winnowed, the seeds should be gray or brown colored. The ideal storage for them is in an opaque envelope in a cool dry place. It seems as though light can effect the seeds' longevity, in addition to exposure to moisture or temperature fluctuations. Perilla is notorious for decreased germination in the second year after storage. We did some experiments and found that keeping them in sealed packages completely deprived of light resulted in nearly perfect germination even with two year old seeds. Our seeds are stored in sealed foil envelopes in a closet that remains evenly cool. 



In short. specs for growing kkaennip:

Sun: Full to partial. Increased sunlight can affect thickness and coloring of leaves.

Plant after threat of frost has passed around the spring equinox during the waxing moon.

Moisture: Moderate. Intermittent watering recommended over deep watering with prolonged period of drying out.

Spacing: 8"


In closing, I asked an older Korean friend once why she thought Koreans came to love kkaennip so much.  How did it become so representative of a people? She responded in true ajumma fashion by saying, "Why do we love kkaennip? That's a weird question! We were born to love kkaennip".  And with that, she left.  And so with her words, I'l leave you to fall in love with kkaennip!













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