Black Pepper (piper nigrum)

The genus Piper includes about 2,000 species of climbing plants, shrubs, and small trees. Piper nigrum (black pepper) is native to Southwest India and is cultivated in tropical areas throughout the world. This woody-stemmed, pungent-smelling climber bears large, oval leaves; spikes of tiny white flowers; and clusters of small berries (called peppercorns) that turn red when mature.

Black peppercorns consist of the entire fruit, called a drupe, harvested from plants that are at least 3 years old, and then dried. Although black pepper is relatively inexpensive now, it was once so highly valued and so difficult to obtain that it was used as currency. In 408 CE, the Mongol warrior Attila the Hun is said to have requested 1½ tons of black pepper as a ransom during his siege of Rome.

In the 15th century, European explorers searched for trade routes to the Far East, where they could obtain peppercorns. The wealth of some European ports, such as Venice, resulted from the quest for black pepper.

Black Pepper

Plant profile

Common Name: Black Pepper

Description: Woody vine, up to 12 feet tall; bears large, oval leaves and spikes of tiny white flowers; clusters of small berries turn red when mature; aromatic

Hardiness: To Zone 10

Family: Piperaceae

Flowering: Summer

Parts Used: Fruit

Range/Habitat: Native to India; cultivated in tropical regions worldwide

Culinary use

Black pepper, one of the world’s oldest-known spices, is used in some form in nearly every regional cuisine. Before the invention of refrigeration, black pepper was used to preserve meat and to mask the taste of meat that was not fresh. Today, the spice is used to flavor savory dishes, including meats, dressings, and pickles. It is an ingredient in many commercially available food products, such as baked goods, condiments, and nonalcoholic beverages.

Whole black peppercorns, ground immediately before use, provide more flavor than preground pepper. White pepper, which comes from the same plant but is prepared differently, has a slightly milder flavor because it lacks the fruit coating.

Medicinal use

High in antioxidants, black pepper contains volatile oil and alkaloids that cause the herb to have a stimulating, warming effect on your digestive and circulatory systems. Used to relieve stomachache, nausea, constipation, bloating, and flatulence, black pepper is also taken to stimulate appetite by increasing gastric secretions.

In China, where black pepper is known as hu jiao, the herb is popular for alleviating phlegm from a cold, stomach reflux, and diarrhea. Essential oil of black pepper, produced by steam distillation of the fruit, has antiseptic and antibacterial properties. It can be diluted in carrier oils and applied externally as a chest rub to warm your body and alleviate congestion from cold and flu. The oil is also added to liniments and creams to ease sore joints and relax tight muscles.

Caution: Essential oil of black pepper is for external use only.

How to grow it

Black pepper grows in rich, well-drained soil in full sun to light shade. It requires high humidity and moisture and will not tolerate temperatures below 60°F. In colder climates, black pepper can be grown as a houseplant in a warm spot that receives bright sunlight. Support the vine on a stake or trellis, and mist the plant to maintain humidity. Hand-pick the fruits when they are half-ripe (red-green in color). Propagate by stem cuttings.

Pepper: The World’s Most Important Spice

Cultivated in tropical regions throughout the world, pepper is produced on large plantations or in fields managed by small farmers. The low-growing evergreen vines are usually planted on poles, for easier harvest of the berries. If you walk through a pepper field, you’ll see several crops growing together in layers — the pepper vines on their supports, annual crops (such as cucumbers or squash) at their bases, and, often, tree crops overhead.

Thousands of miles away, on our supermarket shelves, we can find different kinds of pepper: black, green, and white. All come from Piper nigrum but are handled differently. Immature berries are used to produce green pepper. Half-ripe, red-green berries are used to produce black pepper. And fully ripe, bright red berries become white pepper, after the fruit’s outer layer is removed. Each type has a different flavor, but all contain the alkaloid piperine, one of the compounds that give the seed of this species its pungent flavor.

By the way, the “red pepper” seeds in some P. nigrum blends are not from a pepper at all — that’s the seed of Schinus molle, an invasive tree native to the Peruvian Andes. That species, in the same family as poison ivy and poison oak, can provoke allergic reactions if handled by those sensitive to it and can be toxic when ingested.