Pepper tree

Pepper tree

Pepper tree

The pepper tree is a perennial woody vine capable of reaching, under certain conditions, even 5 meters in height. The leaves measure between 5 and 10 centimeters and tend to have an oval shape; the flowers are very small and bloom on a pendulous stem with a maximum length of 10 centimeters; the fruit is a drupe that contains a single very small seed which takes on a red color once it reaches maturity. A single branch usually produces up to 30 shoots. The plant's natural habitat is represented by an environment with neither dry nor flooded soil, but humid and very fertile. If grown on dry soils, the tree needs, at least in the summer season, to be wet every day. This condition, however, is not ideal: as said the tree some pepper prefers humid soils. Only from the fifth year does the plant begin to bear fruit.

Pepper is still today the best known and requested spice all over the world. Its value and its usefulness have always been so high as to become the cause of great exploration trips as well as one of the triggers for the creation of some colonies by European states. Even today it is considered the king of spices since, in its many types, spicy or only aromatic, it manages to marry well with every flavor, enhancing the dishes in the right way, without covering the fundamental components.

Pepper tree in history - Pepper has fueled thriving businesses">The pepper tree in history

There pepper plant it has been cultivated since ancient times: the first crops were probably found in India, along the coasts of the Indian Sea. Black pepper was often confused with long pepper, so much so that in ancient Rome the two varieties were used indiscriminately. After the discovery of America, with the discovery of the Chilean pepper, the long pepper began to fall into disuse. Throughout the Middle Ages, the black pepper used in Europe and in the Arab-Islamic world was that grown in India; only after 1500 the cultivation of this spice was introduced extensively also in South East Asia, especially in the Indonesian archipelago. Pepper has always represented a luxury item for Europe, the trade of which has helped fuel the flourishing route of the Indies. For many decades, the trade of this precious spice was the prerogative of Venetian and Genoese merchants. In those centuries, pepper was considered such a precious commodity that it was sometimes even used as a currency.

In the 4th century BC Alexander the Great brings pepper to Europe after his expedition to India. It is assumed, however, that its use and its diffusion are even older. Pepper grows wild in India (towards Malabar) and in the regions bordering the China Sea. In fact, it had already been successfully exported to Phenicia and Greece long ago. Among the Egyptians it was very much parceled to the point that some grains were found in the tombs: it is thought that they were offered as a gift to the Gods. Finally it also came to the Romans: they were the first to bring this spice to Gaul and consequently make it known in the rest of our continent. The patricians used it abundantly: for them it was an important sign of wealth and power. It was also used, like salt, like the currency.

After the fall of the Empire, direct relations between India and the West were interrupted for many centuries: the Arab conquests, in fact, made the paths that had previously been opened totally impracticable. Supplies became simpler again from the beginning of the sixteenth century, with the circumnavigation of the Cape of Good Hope by the Portuguese. These, and later other European powers, created numerous colonies to be able to deal directly with the cultivation and transport of the precious granules.

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Characteristics of pepper

On the market we find various types of pepper. It should be pointed out that only pepper that comes from plants of the Piperaceae family is considered true. The Piper genus is then further divided into more than 700 species of which only some are cultivated for the production of the spice.

The piper nigrum is a vine made up of rather thick and woody stems. In nature it behaves mostly as a ground cover or as a climber, clinging to other plants, such as trees or shrubs. It can reach 10 meters in total length. The root system is rather superficial, but it is possible to find aerial roots along the entire development of the plant. The leaves, with petioles, are heart-shaped, elongated and simple, deep dark green, 4 to 20 cm long and 3 to 14 cm wide. The lower page is tomentose.

The panniculus-shaped inflorescences with a long petiole are composed of single yellowish white hermaphrodite flowers. A single inflorescence can contain from 50 to 150 individual flowers. Pollination is done by insects. Harvesting takes place on average 6 to 6 months later. From each flower, in fact, a single fruit develops, which then contains a single seed. The fruits are initially green, then red and finally black berries. When drying they become wrinkled and dark brown, while the inside remains gray or yellowish.

The plant takes three years to bear fruit, but will remain productive for a long time: 20 to 30 years.

The piper nigrum is native to all of Southeast Asia. It is found spontaneously in Southwestern India and China. Given its economic value, its cultivation has spread a little throughout the area, in particular in Java, Borneo, the Philippines and Japan. Currently, some African and Latin American countries are also taking an interest in this crop (in particular it is very widespread in Brazil).

Pepper plant in Brazil">The pink pepper tree

Pink pepper owes its name to the color of its fruit. Also known by the nickname of false pepper, it is native to the Andean regions of South America. Often, in Latin America, it is possible to find images of the pink pepper tree next to statues of native South Americans. The pink pepper tree is an evergreen and very tall plant: the stem is branched, the crown is very large and the posture is pendulous, so much so that sometimes the branches touch the ground. For this characteristic it often recalls the willow. The flowers are white and, in the autumn period, are replaced by fruits, small oval pink berries with a very strong aroma. The pink pepper tree can also be grown in the warm regions of southern Europe. In the southern Italian regions, for example, it is used as a tree for street furniture. Due to its origins, it hardly tolerates temperatures below 0 degrees: in the winter, young plants must be protected with sheets. The plant thrives in sunny areas and needs well-drained soil.

The uses of pepper

In the Middle Ages, pepper was considered a kind of luxury that only the rich could afford. For these reasons his request fueled flourishing businesses. Although considered unfounded by historians, it is common to believe that in the Middle Ages pepper was used to improve the taste of meat that has gone bad. Pink pepper is mainly used as a condiment: its aroma, sweeter and more delicate than that of traditional pepper, is ideal for flavoring fish dishes. However, like other spices, it was also used in medicine: pink pepper was often prescribed, for example, in case of indigestion, due to its digestive properties. Its use is also widespread in case of ailments such as pain in the teeth or rheumatism, thanks to its renowned diuretic properties. The nickname of "black gold", a label now attached to oil but which in past centuries was the prerogative of this spice, well explains the importance it enjoyed for a long time.

Types of pepper

Green, white, black and red pepper are the fruits of the same plant. The chromatic and organoleptic differences depend on the state of ripeness at which they are harvested and on the subsequent processing. There is even a type of pepper called "ultra-white": it is used by great chefs to give harmony to sauces, without compromising their color. It is a true niche production as there are specialized workers who are responsible for choosing, one by one, manually, the berries that are perfectly white.

Type of pepperCollection and preparationTaste and uses
GreenHarvested about 4 months after pollination, when the berry is still immature. It is preserved freeze-dried or, more commonly, in brine.It has a very fruity flavor and is considered to be the least spicy
BlackIt is harvested once it has reached full ripeness, that is, when the peel becomes orange-yellow and the seed has already formed well inside. It is then spread outdoors and left to dry in the sun. After this operation the pericarp becomes wrinkled and blackish-brown in color.It is pepper that has the strongest component of spiciness and the fruity aroma is less distinct
WhiteIt is also harvested when the fruit takes on an orange color. After a quick soaking and fermentation, the pericarp (the part that contains the strongest flavor) is removed from the berries. They are then left to dry slightly.The product remains only the aromatic and fruity taste, given by the central seed
RedIt is the berry that has reached full maturity. It can be eaten fresh, in brine or dried. It is very rare on the market because at a commercial level it is very convenient to harvest the fruit that is still partially immature

Where does the spiciness of pepper come from? What are its uses?

The typical intense flavor of pepper is mainly concentrated in its peel, soaked in resins and in particular piperine. In the center of the berry there are essentially delicate, aromatic and fruity scents. Pepper has not only gustatory virtues. It is also an excellent tonic, aids digestion and is rich in mineral salts. In high doses, however, it can have exciting and irritating effects, as well as favoring an increase in blood pressure.

Cultivating pepper

In areas where it is endemic, it is a very simple plant that requires very little maintenance.

Climate and exposure

It tends to require a tropical climate: therefore rather high temperatures (always above 20 °; possibly between 25 and 30 ° C), very bright exposure (but not direct sun) and, above all, a strong atmospheric humidity.


Irrigation must always be important because the plant absolutely cannot bear to have its roots in a dry substrate. In fact, in the places of origin, heavy rainfall is very frequent, even daily.


It requires very rich soils in organic matter. Alluvial and volcanic substrates are therefore optimal. However, the plant absolutely does not tolerate water stagnation. Consequently, highly compact and clayey areas should be avoided or it is necessary to intervene previously by incorporating a good quantity of sand and / or soil improver.


In large-scale cultivation, propagation occurs through cuttings. With high temperatures and high humidity, rooting is quite fast. Proceed by taking portions of the branch about half a meter long. They are then put to root in water or in a very draining soil which is always kept moist.

The roots are released within a month. The seedlings are then transferred into pots and equipped with a support (mostly coconut fiber or other material that easily retains moisture is used). Their growth continues in the greenhouse until the age of about 3 years when they are transferred to the ground. From that moment they begin to be productive and can remain so for about 20 years.

First namePlant from which it derivesDescriptionTaste
pink pepperSchinus molleFruit of a large tree related to the pistachio, originally from Latin AmericaVery sweet, almost sugary, then more aromatic, spicy and hot
Sichuan pepperZanthoxylum piperitumIt is the fruit of a typical tree of the Sichuan province, in the north-west of China. The berries are harvested at the end of summer and dried in the sun, until they turn brownish-red.It must be heated to release its woody, sour and citrus aroma, which is only slightly spicy.
Allspice (allspice)Pimenta dioicaIt is the dried fruit of a tree native to the Antilles. Plucked at maturity and dried in the sun until it turns dark brown.It is a combination of the flavors of cinnamon, nutmeg and black pepper.
Pepper of the monksVitex agnus-castusIt is the dried fruit of the chaste tree, a shrub typical of the Mediterranean.It has a less pronounced taste than other peppers, slightly bitter and not very fragrant
Black cuminNigella SativaThey are the seeds of a herbaceous annual native to AsiaFruity and slightly spicy taste. It can be toasted.

Production and harvest

The maximum productivity occurs towards the seventh year of life and gradually decreases after the tenth. In some plantations the plants are completely renewed starting from the twelfth year.

Up to 8 harvests can be had in one year, although a lot depends on the climate and age of the plant. Harvesting is still done mostly manually today.

Other types of pepper

All spices, herbs and aromas that are not produced by the lianas of the Piperaceae family are considered to be "false peppers".

Here are the best known and most popular:

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