The United Colors of Pepper

Like people, pepper seems to come in all the colors of the rainbow. But one of these things is not like the others.

Black, white, and green pepper represent quite a bit of variety all by themselves. Though they are all the fruits (technically, drupes) of the true pepper plant (Piper nigrum, Piperaceae), native to India and Sri Lanka, the difference is in the processing. To produce black peppercorns, mature but unripe drupes are laid out in the sun to trigger an enzymatic fermentation that develops the flavor. The drupes are then left to dry and darken. For white peppercorns, fleshy ripe drupes are left to rot in running water. Yum! Once the fleshy part rots away, the white endocarp is exposed, and the fruits are left to dry.  Green peppercorns are the easiest of the three – the unripe fruits are picked and then pickled or freeze-dried. You can get true red or rose pepper the same way, using red, ripe fruits.

But the vast majority of pink peppercorns for sale in North America are not from Piper nigrum. They aren’t even from a member of the Pepper family. They are instead from unrelated species, either the shrubby tree, Brazilian pepper (Schinus terebinthifolius) or the related larger tree, Peruvian pepper (Schinus molle).  These trees, natives of South America, produce small pink fruits which have a peppery taste. And what do you know, they’re also invasive!

Originally planted in North America as ornamentals in the mid-1800s, these two pepper impersonators have invaded large parts of Florida, Hawaii, Arizona, Nevada, California, Texas, and Puerto Rico. They are also invasive in all the most appealing tropical locations, including South Africa, Australia, the Bahamas, Bermuda, southern China, Cuba, Fiji, and New Zealand. S. terebinthifolius plants are illegal to sell in Florida and Texas – reasonable, considering that it dominates some 700,000 acres in central and southern Florida. In the invaded range, these plants tend to grow in dense thickets, which displace and shade out natives species.  They also aren’t the most fun plants to try to remove. When the trunks are cut, they sprout new offshoots. And the sap contains skin irritating alkenyl phenols, a trait shared by other members of the Cashew Family (Anacardiaceae), such as poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans).

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6 thoughts on “The United Colors of Pepper

  1. Pingback: Nibbles: Encomium to Bioversity, PGR economics, Europe newsletter, Mapping urban veggies, Piper, Fruit breeding

  2. Pingback: Berry Go Round March & April dual edition « Seeds Aside

  3. Pingback: Chile peppers are for the birds! | Alien Plantation

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