Years ago on a trip to Frankie’s Nursery on Oahu, I was charmed by their black pepper plants. I recently acquired one and am reviewing information on best practices to be able to harvest my own peppercorns.
Black pepper is an interesting plant that can add a bit of spice to your edible garden. It grows as a vine with long climbing stems. Once established, after a few years, small light green flowers appear on pendulous three-inch spikes. Following the flowers, green dupes or berries begin to grow and turn red when fully ripe in about nine months. The spikes of pepper can be harvested when the berries are green or when they are fully ripe. Whenever you choose to harvest them, they can be used as a condiment or added to recipes that call for the spicy flavor of black pepper.
Known botanically as Piper nigrum, black pepper is in the same botanical genus as the Hawaiian native plant kava or ‘awa (P. mythysticum). Over 1,000 species are in the pan-tropical Piper genus. All are in the Piperaceae family, which includes more than 2,000 species.
This family is separate and distinct from the Solanaceae family, which includes the fleshy sweet and hot vegetables we enjoy. Those edible peppers are in the Capsicum genus and grow in a wide range of colors and flavors.
Black pepper is native to South and Southeast Asia, and has been used in Indian cooking since at least 2000 BC. Black pepper became a valuable part of the spice trade as early as the fourth century in Greece. It was also a valuable commodity in the Roman Empire and became popular in Europe during the Middle Ages.
The Bishop of Sherborne described black pepper and its use in England during the seventh century:
“I am black on the outside, clad in a wrinkled cover,
Yet within I bear a burning marrow.
I season delicacies, the banquets of kings, and the luxuries of the table,
Both the sauces and the tenderized meats of the kitchen.”
Today, cultivated pepper plants are grown in many places with warm, humid climates. The spice is widely used to season food and joins salt on most tables. If you want to include the rich peppery flavor of fresh black pepper in your food, consider growing your own.
The black pepper vine can grow ten feet or longer with good support on a tree, pole or trellis. If stems grow along the ground, they may put out roots at the nodes. A single stem can produce as many as twenty pendulous fruiting spikes. The green berries on the spikes can be harvested as soon as a few begin to turn red.
The berries can then be treated in several ways, each with a slightly different flavor profile. You can produce black, white, red or green peppercorns from your harvest. Pink peppercorns are from a different species, however.
Black pepper is produced from the unripe green fruit berries known as drupes. In commercial operations, these drupes are cleaned and prepared for drying by putting them in boiling water for about ten minutes. This speeds the drying process, but is not necessary. Alternatively, the spikes holding the fruit can simply be dried in the sun until the skin darkens into a wrinkled black peppercorn.
White pepper is actually the seed of the ripe fruit. To remove the seed, the ripe red pepper berries are soaked in water for a few days until the fruit softens sufficiently to allow for its removal. The remaining seed is dried until it is white. White peppercorns are used in white sauces and mashed potatoes where they add a subtle peppery flavor without being visible.
Green peppercorns are often used fresh in areas where the vines grow. In order to ship them, however, they must be preserved. Several techniques are used to retain the green color. Treating the berries with sulfur dioxide while drying, as well as canning or freeze drying them helps them stay green. Pickling in brine or vinegar is another way to preserve the green color.
The color of red peppercorns is preserved by soaking them in brine or vinegar. The color preserving methods used in green peppercorns can also be used with ripe red ones.
Pink peppercorns are grown on the tree known locally as Christmas berry (Schinus terebinthifolia). This tree is a member of the Anarcardiaceae or cashew family. Caution is advised in consuming pink peppercorns, as the fruit from this tree can cause allergic reactions.
Pepper oil, which is used in some herbal remedies, can be extracted by crushing the dried peppercorns.
Black pepper can be propagated from seeds that are harvested from ripe fruit and dried well. Planting them in a shady spot that gets daily misting will encourage germination and growth.
New plants can also be grown from stem cuttings of about eighteen inches. These should be attached to a supportive plant or structure while they are developing roots. Once new plants are well rooted, plant them in partial shade in soil that is rich in organic matter and drains well. Black pepper plants are not salt or wind tolerant, so place them where they are well protected.
Fertilizing several times a year with a balanced, slow release fertilizer will help your black pepper plant thrive. Occasional pruning to limit growth to three main stems will encourage fruiting.
The worst problem black pepper plants experience is root rot. Water only when the top of the soil feels dry. Only a few pests are attracted to this plant. Insects that do appear can be treated by contacting them with a combination of safer soap and neem oil. Trimming the shoots twice a year will help strengthen the plant and encourage fruiting. New plants will usually start to fruit within four years and they should continue production for about seven years.
The chance to grow my own peppercorns and enjoy the pungent flavor of fresh pepper appealed to me. Maybe you’ll try growing your own as well.
Diana Duff is a plant adviser, educator and consultant living part time in Kailua-Kona.
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