Cardamom: Tropical Spice and…Scandinavian Staple!?

 

By Amy Forsberg

Green cardamom seed podsI had what seemed like a simple question: How and why did cardamom, the spice native to southern India, become such an essential and beloved baking spice in snowy Scandinavia? I have Swedish ancestry, and absolutely love cardamom bread and other baked goods made with cardamom. In Scandinavian culture, cardamom often represents comfort and home and family and holiday treats–similar to how we in the U.S. view cinnamon, perhaps. (Of course, cinnamon is also of South Asian origin!) I started with some hazy knowledge of the history of the spice trade–that cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, pepper, and ginger spread throughout the world from their places of origin via complex trade routes over the course of many centuries, contributing to the rise and fall of various empires and economies. But I was curious why cardamom, in particular, took root in Scandinavia of all places. Researching that question took me on a fascinating journey through human history and around the world, teaching me much more about the spice trade and about how all of Europe went crazy for spices in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Good answers to my questions remained elusive, perhaps lost to history. But the story of the spice trade, and cardamom’s place in it, is an interesting one. So let’s talk about cardamom!

Cardamom is not as well known in the United States as in some parts of the world. The spice known as cardamom is the seed of Elettaria cardamomum, an herbaceous perennial in the ginger family, Zingerberaceae. This is the source of both green and white cardamom, which is just green cardamom that has been bleached and which has a milder flavor. The scent and flavor combines notes of citrus, mint, and pine, and can be described as sweet, spicy, herbal, and floral.

There is a lesser known cousin, black cardamom, that is derived from Amomum subulatum. The pods of black cardamom are larger than the green and have a characteristic smoky flavor imparted during the drying process. Black cardamom is used in Indian, Chinese, and Vietnamese cuisine.

Elettaria cardamomum is tropical, needing shade and consistent year-round warmth (temperatures between 50° and 95°F) and humidity in order to flower and fruit. In such a setting, it can reach 15 feet tall! It grows from rhizomes, much like ginger and turmeric, and produces panicles of flowers at the base of the foliage, which then develop into pods containing 15-20 seeds each. Native to the Western Ghats mountain range in southern India, it is now grown commercially primarily in Guatemala, but also in India and Sri Lanka. It is the third most costly spice in the world, after saffron and vanilla. Cardamom has been valued for culinary and medicinal uses for thousands of years. Today, it is consumed around the world, but primarily in India and the Middle East, followed by South Asia, the United States, and the European Union. 

Periplous_of_the_Erythraean_Sea.svgThe earliest recorded use of cardamom is in an ancient Sanskrit text dating to about 3000 BC that lists cardamom as one of the spices to be poured in a sacrificial fire during marriage ceremonies. Use spread throughout the ancient world, and by 100 AD, cardamom was in use throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East for cooking, perfumery, and medicine. Both Greece and Rome imported large quantities of cardamom and used it in cuisine as well as medicine. The famous Greek physician, Dioscorides, mentions cardamom, among other imported spices, as a useful medicine—especially as a digestive aid after a heavy meal. Recipes from Apicius, the first-century Roman cookbook, use generous amounts of ginger, pepper, and cardamom. The Persian and Arabian empires imported large quantities of cardamom from India, and their detailed cookbooks and medical texts specify different grades, sizes, and types of cardamom. 

Cardamom and other spices, such as ginger, pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves, were brought to the Mediterranean by Arab traders and were traded in Naples, Venice, and Corsica, among other ports. Those who controlled the trade allowed their customers to remain in the dark as to the original source of the spices for centuries. Ancient historians, such as Pliny, believed cardamom grew in Arabia. The status and allure of these spices was increased by the mystery of their true origin, and this helped keep prices high. Trade involved many middlemen, and few, if any, along the routes knew where the goods had originated or where they would end up. Trade in spices was lucrative because the spices were relatively inexpensive at their source and were compact, lightweight, and non-perishable compared to many other goods. Spice routes were frequently shifting due to wars and power struggles, so by the time the spices reached a final destination, they had changed hands many times and were fantastically expensive. Thus, they were viewed as “high status” and “exotic” luxury goods.

Map of ScandinaviaBy the early Middle Ages, cardamom and other spices were finding their way up into Northern and Western Europe. The Vikings are commonly credited with bringing cardamom home to Scandinavia after encountering it in Constantinople towards the end of the Viking era in the early 11th century. However, Daniel Serra, a culinary archaeologist, says in his book, An Early Meal–A Viking Age Cookbook & Culinary Odyssey, that this is likely wrong due to a total lack of evidence. The earliest mention of cardamom in Scandinavia is in a 13th century cookbook written by a Danish monk in which the recipes that contain cardamom are nearly identical to Moorish recipes of the same era. Serra thinks the Moors likely introduced cardamom to Scandinavia. According to this theory, cardamom and other spices would have found their way from the Iberian peninsula up to London, and then from London, were traded along a German trade route up into Scandinavia.

Renaissance banquetThe exact details of the how and when cardamom first found its way to Scandinavia may never be proven precisely. But what is well-documented is how all of Europe went spice crazy during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Spices such as cinnamon, black pepper, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, and cardamom were expensive and fashionable throughout Europe and were used lavishly in large banquets that would feature dozens of types of exotic game birds and meats, sauces and stews, and large quantities of spiced wine. These banquets could last for days and were an important way to display wealth and status. 

Green cardamom seeds

Green cardamom seeds

The cliché often repeated that spices were used in the Middle Ages to cover the taste of spoiled meat does not stand up to scrutiny. People who could afford spices could afford fresh meat, as spices were more expensive than meat. Food was commonly dried, salted, or pickled to preserve it, and spices are not an effective means of doctoring spoiled meat in any case.

In 1498, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama landed in Calicut, on the Malabar Coast of southern India, and at long last discovered the vast markets where the global spice trade originated. In short order, the Portuguese violently took control of the spice trade and for the first time, imported spices directly to Europe ending the circuitous Arab-controlled trade routes over land from the Middle East into the Mediterranean, and eliminating many middlemen. Prices fell in Europe, and spices came within reach of even “middle class” people for special occasions. 

Swedish cardamom roll

Swedish cardamom roll

In the 1590s, the Dutch took over spice production and trade, and prices dropped even further as supply increased. The “culinary reign” of spices that had lasted in Europe from Roman times through the Renaissance ended in the 1700s. By the 1800s, spices in Europe were plentiful and inexpensive enough to be used daily in foods like breads, cookies, and coffee, but had lost their mystery, glamour, and status. Interestingly, these same spices completely fell out of favor for most savory cuisine throughout Europe. Food was, instead, seasoned primarily with herbs, wine, and cheeses, much as today. This transition came first to Southern Europe and then spread gradually into Northern Europe. Spices largely disappeared from European cuisine, with the notable exceptions of saffron in Spanish paella and cardamom in Scandinavian baked goods and desserts. 

Again, the question of why Scandinavia, in particular, held onto the use of cardamom, in particular, is difficult to answer. Daniel Serra speculates that, because Scandinavia is on the fringes of the continent, it clung to medieval food ways longer—”outposts” are often slower to adopt changes and new styles. This is not a complete or satisfying answer, though. It is true, however, that the unique flavor of cardamom marries perfectly with sweet, yeasted bread dough, and that a good cardamom bun or braided loaf is a wonderful thing, especially when paired with coffee and shared with friends!

Scandinavian Coffee Braid 

Scandinavian coffee braid(From Scandinavian Feasts by Beatrice Ojakangas. Also known as vetebröd in Sweden or pulla in Finland, this sweet yeast dough is versatile; it can be shaped into braids (as in this recipe) or made into buns known as kardemummabullar.)

  • 2 packages active dry yeast
  • ½ cup warm water (105°F -115°F)
  • 2 cups milk, scalded to 170°F and cooled
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly crushed cardamom
  • 4 eggs, slightly beaten
  • 8-9 cups flour
  • ½ cup (1 stick) butter, melted
  • 1 egg beaten with 2 tablespoons milk
  • ½ cup sliced almonds
  • ½ cup pearl sugar or coarsely crushed sugar cubes

In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast in the warm water. Let stand about 5 minutes or until the yeast bubbles. Stir in the milk, sugar, salt, cardamom, eggs, and four cups of the flour. Beat until smooth. Add the butter.

Gradually stir enough of the remaining flour to make a stiff dough. Turn out onto a floured board. Cover and let stand for 15 minutes. Wash and grease the bowl, and set it aside.

Knead the dough, adding flour as necessary, until it is smooth, about 10 minutes. Place the dough in the prepared bowl, turning the dough to grease it on all sides. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, 1 ½ – 2 hours. Punch down. Turn the dough out onto an oiled surface.

To make three braided loaves: Divide dough into 3 parts. Divide each part into three portions. Roll each portion into a 30” long rope. Braid three ropes together to make a loaf. Pinch the ends together, and tuck them under the loaf. Place on a lightly greased baking sheet, and repeat with the remaining portions of dough. Let rise in a warm place until almost doubled, about 45 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375°F. Brush loaves with the egg and milk mixture and sprinkle with the sliced almonds and/or pearl sugar. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until lightly browned. Do not overbake. Cool on racks.

Photo Credits: 1) Green cardamom seed pods (C. Moore); 2) Green cardamom plant (Creative Commons, https://snl.no/kardemomme); 3) Green cardamom flower (Creative Commons, Reji Jacob, Mukkoottuthara, Pathanamthitta District of Kerala state) and black cardamom flower (Wikimedia Commons by Praptipanigrahi – own work); 4) Green and black cardamom seed pods (C. Moore); 5) Trade route map (Wikipedia, George Tsiagalakis); 6) Spices (Creative Commons); 7) Map of Scandinavia (mapsofeurope.net); 8) Painting of Renaissance banquet (hisour.com); 9) Green cardamom seeds (C. Moore); 10) Swedish pastry interlude: a cardamom roll at the Vasa Museum cafe, Creative Commons by alykat); 11) Scandinavian coffee braid (Wikipedia).

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.

References

Corn, C. 1999. The scents of Eden: A history of the spice trade. New York: Kodansha International.

Citron, C. 2020. Cardamom: How an Indian spice became a Swedish staple. ArcGIS StoryMaps. Esri. https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/a9cfbc9e11f04a79885521bc559c9815

Dunn, S. 2021. Cardamom: How did it become Scandinavia’s favorite spice? Cook’s Illustrated. America’s Test Kitchen. https://www.cooksillustrated.com/articles/3076-cardamom-how-did-it-become-scandinavia-s-favorite-spice

Freedman, P. 2008. Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval imagination. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Krondl, M. 2007. The taste of conquest: The rise and fall of the three great cities of spice. New York: Ballantine Books.

Mehra, Rupali. 2019. How spices have connected Sweden and India since the Viking Age. The Local SE. The Local Europe AB. https://www.thelocal.se/20190104/how-spices-have-connected-sweden-with-india-since-the-viking-age/

Miltner, Olivia. 2017. The hidden history of Scandinavia’s love of cardamom. OZY.  https://www.ozy.com/around-the-world/the-hidden-history-of-scandinavias-love-of-cardamom/82046/

Missouri Botanical Garden (Internet). Elettaria cardamomum. Accessed September 4, 2021. http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?taxonid=287608&isprofile=0&

Turner, Jack. 2004. Spice: The history of a temptation. New York: Random House.


Amy Forsberg lives in Maryland and gardens full-time at Hillwood Estate Museum and Gardens in Washington D.C., where she cares for the Japanese Style Garden. Previously, she gardened at the U.S. National Arboretum and the U.S. Botanic Garden. She was the 2001 National Herb Garden intern.

HSA Webinar: Exploration of Spice

Sponsored by The New York Unit
by Jen Munson, HSA Education Chair

spice imageThe Herb Society embraces spices as herbs, but what distinguishes an herb from a spice? An herb is the leafy part of a plant, whereas a spice is the “hard” part. So, herbs might include oregano, sage, rosemary, sorrel, and basil, to name a few. Spices, on the other hand, include the bark, root, or seed…think of cinnamon, black pepper, cloves, and nutmeg. Notable exceptions to the herb vs. spice conversation are coriander and dill. Coriander and dill seed are the seeds of the cilantro and dill plants, respectively. 

While herbs take the culinary spotlight for delivering immense flavor to our food, spices often get relegated to fall holidays when cinnamon, allspice, and other favorite spices get used. However, spices can be enjoyed year-round to ramp up the flavor in food. To learn more, join us on Tuesday, May 18th at 1pm Eastern when Master Spice Blender, 2258_2018_LiorBook_WholeRoastedFish_0451Lior Lev Sercarz, joins HSA for an “Exploration of Spice.” 

To prepare for this program consider going through your herb and spice cabinet. As a rule of thumb, stored herbs and spices will last six months to a year. If you cannot recall when they were last purchased, you will want to evaluate their shape and color; unless purchased in powdered form, the herbs and spices should be solid, vibrant, and smell flavorful. So, if your dried rosemary leaf or black pepper do not have vibrant colors, consider throwing them away. Or if they are half whole and half powder they may just be falling to dust. When purchasing herbs and spices, label the jar with the date of purchase before storing so you will know when they need replacement. To ensure the best flavor, purchase small batches of dried herbs and spices in whole form from specialty suppliers.

This webinar is $5.00 for guests/ free for members. Become a member today to enjoy this discounted rate and as a bonus, you will automatically be entered into a drawing for a free registration to our June 10-12th, 2021 Annual Meeting of Members and Educational Conference. To register visit https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/hsa-webinars/

About Lior Lev Sercarz: Growing up, Lior did the household cooking while his mother worked late hours. He later found himself in cooking school and decided to make it a career after working with Israeli Chef Gil Frank, and enrolled at the acclaimed Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyon, France. During that time, he did an externship with Michelin-starred chef laboite logoOlivier Roellinger in Cancale, France. Roellinger became known for his rare understanding of spices, blends, oils, and pastes, areas Lior found the most interesting.

In 2002, Lior brought his newfound understanding of spice blending to New York, where he landed an opportunity with Chef Daniel Boulud at his flagship restaurant, Daniel, as a sous chef and catering chef. He left Daniel in 2008 to start La Boîte, originally making and selling a line of French biscuits, as well as experimenting with spices. In 2011, he opened La Boîte Biscuits & Spices, an art gallery and spice shop in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen. Today, Lior collaborates with chefs from around the world, developing custom blends, including: Daniel, Le Bernardin, Zahav, Kawi, Del Posto, Marc Forgione, and Michael Mina, among others.

essentials-181108-jewisharts-credit-thomas-schauerLior has written three cookbooks including The Art of Blending (2012), The Spice Companion (Clarkson Potter, 2016), and his recent effort, Mastering Spice: Recipes and Techniques to Transform Your Everyday Cooking (Clarkson Potter, October 2019), which offers 250 recipes informing readers on how spices change the way one makes every meal. To learn more, visit his website at www.laboiteny.com

Photo credits: 1) Spices (Pixaby); 2 – 4) Lior Lev Sercarz photos.

Exploring Vanilla in the Rainforest and in the Kitchen: Part I

By Susan Belsinger

(Adapted from her article, “Exploring Rainforest Spices at Villa Vanilla,” featured in the 2019 issue of The Herbarist, the annual journal of The Herb Society of America.)

Vanilla in the Rainforest

P1110204Before going to Costa Rica, I researched gardens, restaurants, herbs, spices, botanicals and the rainforest—places where I wanted to go, see, and experience. Once I visited Villa Vanilla’s website, https://www.rainforestspices.com/, I knew that I had to go there. I made reservations for the farm tour in advance. It was one of my favorite things in Costa Rica—I loved seeing the tropical spice plants up close and personal—and I got to smell and taste so many things, which was a memorable sensory experience! 

During the half day Spice Plantation Tour, visitors experience the sights, tastes, and aromas of vanilla, cinnamon, pepper, and other tropical spices, essential oil plants, and a wide variety of tropical ornamental P1110256plants. The tour begins and ends at the post-harvest warehouse, where my eyes feasted on the spectacle of the ground covered with burlap sacks, which were spread with vanilla beans in various stages of fermentation and curing, and my nose filled with the delightfully overwhelming perfume of vanilla.

Vanilla is the main crop that is cultivated on this farm, with Ceylon cinnamon as a secondary crop. However, they also cultivate cacao, pepper, allspice, cloves, nutmeg, chiles, turmeric, cardamom, ginger (mostly ornamental), and a large number of epiphytes. 

On our tour, we sampled delicious treats made by the chef, who used the farm’s spices to titillate our taste buds. To cool off, we first had a glass of chilled hibiscus infusion while gazing out at the tropical paradise. The next sample was a lovely, smooth vanilla bean custard, not too sweet, with a creamy, melt-in-your-mouth texture. We were served a demitasse of hot chocolate flavored with a hint of cinnamon and chile accompanied by a crunchy, vanilla shortbread P1070032cookie speckled with cacao nibs. And the grand finale was a scoop of homemade vanilla bean ice cream made with farm fresh milk and cream from the farm’s own dairy cow. 

After visiting the Spice Shoppe, we walked back to the small warehouse where we were able to view different spices in various stages of drying. Our guide described and showed us some of the processes of harvesting and processing both vanilla and cacao pods, and we saw Ceylon cinnamon being barked. 

We learned about the process of the vanilla bean from harvest to cured, saleable bean. Once the plant has produced the green pods, they swell as they mature. When they are ready to harvest, they pull off easily from P1110195the stem. Green pods are placed in a large, clear plastic bag, which begins the fermentation process. Then they are laid outdoors in the sun every morning for four hours. Next, they are placed in insulated boxes while they are still warm from the sun and brought inside the warehouse for twenty hours. This is repeated every day for about three to four days. This process of sweating the beans in the sun makes a superior fermented end-product. (In other parts of the world, green beans are dropped in boiling water rather than curing in the sun.) After a week, the pods have turned brown, and they are removed from the plastic bags and spread out on burlap sacks. The four hours of sun/twenty hours in the dark process is continued for another three to four weeks until the pods have begun P1110187to shrivel and have lost about 80% of their original weight. Then they are left to cure—and this time varies among farmers—from nine months to two years. Villa Vanilla cures their beans for two years for best flavor and quality.

After curing, the beans are graded and separated according to size—there are about four sizes from thin to medium to large and extra-large. An extra-large bean is something to behold indeed! They are magnificent, thick and plump and slightly moist, bursting with the mouthwatering and intoxicating, inimitable scent of vanilla. 

Vanilla’s Aromatic Pedigree

The vanilla plant is a tropical vine that can reach a length of over one hundred feet. It belongs to one of the oldest and largest groups of flowering plants—the orchids (Orchidaceae)—currently known to contain more than twenty-five thousand species and counting. Of all the orchids, the Vanilla genus is the only one that produces an agriculturally valuable crop separate from the rare, hothouse exotic orchids cultivated and traded for their beautiful, colorful flowers. The vanilla orchid has its own appeal: a fruit with a scent so unique, so distinctive to the human palate that it was once worth its weight in silver.

vanilla-flower-542019_1920The vanilla orchid’s flower is not showy; it has only a slight scent with no element of vanilla flavor or aroma. When its pale-yellow flowers are pollinated, the ovaries swell and develop into the fruits we call “pods” or “beans,” just like extra-long green beans. Pollination in the wild is very iffy, so most growers hand pollinate to ensure a viable crop. This is very labor intensive and has to be done when the flower is just open, which is a very brief window of time–literally a few hours on a single day. Each pod contains tens of thousands of tiny black seeds. The growing process lasts up to nine months, but only when the pods turn brown after being dried and cured do they develop the distinctive aroma we call “vanilla.” Drying, curing, and conditioning the pods is an art, which, if done properly, takes at least another nine months. Understandably, vanilla is one of the most labor-intensive agricultural products in the world. 

P1070023There are more than a hundred different species of vanilla orchid, and they grow all over the tropics with the exception of Australia. All of the vanilla orchids produce fruits containing seeds, but only a few species bear the large aromatic pods that can be used commercially. Virtually all of the cultivated vanilla in the world today comes from just one species, Vanilla planifolia (sometimes called Vanilla fragrans), a plant indigenous to Central America, and particularly the south-eastern part of Mexico. At least two other species, V. pompona and V. tahitensis, also provide a serviceable culinary pod, although they are not as readily obtainable, and they produce a different flavor and aroma to the V. planifolia

Stay tuned for Vanilla Part II, including recipes from Susan, coming 8 March, 2021!

Photo Credits: 1) Villa Vanilla poster; 2) Drying vanilla beans on burlap sacks; 3) Vanilla custard; 4) Green, unripe vanilla pods; 5) Dried vanilla pods; 6) Vanilla flowers; 7) Vanilla vine. All photos courtesy of the author, except 6) (Pixaby).


1-Susan Belsinger

Susan Belsinger lives an herbal life, whether she is gardening, foraging, herborizing, photographing, teaching, researching, writing or creating herbal recipes for the kitchen or apothecary—she is passionate about all things herbal. Referred to as a “flavor artist”, Susan delights in kitchen alchemy—the blending of harmonious foods, herbs, and spices—to create real, delicious food, as well as libations, that nourish our bodies and spirits and titillate our senses. There is nothing she likes better than an herbal adventure, whether it’s a wild weed walk, herb conference, visiting gardens or cultivating her own, or the sensory experience of herbs through touch, smell, taste and sight.

Susan is a member of the Potomac and the Ozark Units of the Herb Society of America and served as Honorary President (2018 to 2020). Her latest publication Growing Your Own Herbs: The 40 Best Culinary Varieties for Home Gardens (2019, Timber Press) co-authored by Susan Belsinger and Arthur O. Tucker—is a revised, concise version for gardeners and cooks—of The Culinary Herbal: Growing & Preserving 97 Flavorful Herbs (2016). Currently, she is working on a book about flavor to be published in 2021. After blogging for Taunton Press’ www.vegetablegardener.com for the past eight years, those blogs (over 484 to be exact) are now posted at https://www.finegardening.com/?s=susan%20belsinger. To order books, go to susanbelsinger.com

Pink Peppercorn – Herb of the Month

The Peppercorn That is Not a Pepper
by Maryann Readal

The pink peppercorns that are found in the colorful mix used in clear pepper mills are not the true pepper of the Piper nigrum vine. These rosy colored berries are from the peppercorn tree, Schinus molle. The dried pink peppercorns do have a slight peppery, resinous taste and add color and sparkle when ground over any light-colored dish. Their milder flavor also makes them suitable for use in pasta and some dessert dishes like ice pink peppercorncream and fruit, or sprinkled over a cheese board.

The peppercorn tree is native to Peru and is also called the Peruvian or California peppertree. This drought resistant tree is evergreen and can be grown in warm parts of the United States, Africa, India, Australia, and New Zealand. In fact, it has naturalized in some areas outside of Peru, and is considered invasive in some places. It is confused with its close cousin, the  Brazilian peppertree, Schinus terebinthifolius, which grows in Brazil and other subtropical parts of the world.

Archaeological findings show that the tree was used in daily life in the Peruvian Wari Empire (600-1100 CE), an empire that predated the Incas. Harvesting of the berries was a communal event. The berries, leaves, bark, and roots of the tree were used in medicine, as a yellow dye, and in embalming. The dried seeds were used as fire starters. The primary use of the berries was for making the fermented drink chicha de molle, which was similar to beer. Later, Spanish explorers cleared large tracts of the peppertree and used the wood to make wagon wheels and fence posts.

pink peppercorn tree Forest & Kim StarrThe peppercorn tree has been grown in California for over 200 years. It is one of the iconic trees in the Southern California landscape, where the trees have lined many famous boulevards. It was brought to California by Jesuit priests who had traveled to South America and brought back the tree and planted it in missions. In fact, a peppercorn tree in Orange County, CA, is listed in the National Registry of Champion Trees in the U.S. with a circumference of 367 inches. The graceful, hanging branches of the tree are a desirable feature, as well as the pink-to-red berries that are harvested in the fall. According to American Forests, “the tree is critical to the ecosystem because it provides food and shelter for wildlife, purifies water, and reduces CO2 in the atmosphere.” The tree is dioecious, meaning that a female and a male tree are needed to produce berries. It has fallen out of favor in California because it attracts a black scale that is harmful to citrus.

Several breweries have attempted to recreate the authentic chicha de molle fermented drink of ancient Peru.  Chicago brewer, Off Color Brewing, offers it as Wari beer. Brewers there worked with Chicago’s Field Museum researchers who discovered the remains of an ancient Wari brewery in Peru. The Dogfish Head Craft Brewery also brewed a craft beer using Schinus molle berries and purple Peruvian corn. Their recipe followed the ancient method of chicha makers who first chewed the corn and then spat it out and dried it. Don’t worry, the beer was then boiled before fermentation.

peppercorn beer mugThe Peruvian peppertree is not without controversy. In 1982, The US Food and Drug Administration banned import of the berries from France’s Réunion Islands because allergic reactions to the berries were reported. France objected because the berries were a major cash crop for the islands. They presented research showing that their berries were safe. However, it was noted that the tree was in the cashew and sumac family (Anacardiaceae), and anyone who is sensitive to these plants could have a reaction when eating the peppertree berries. It was determined that the Peruvian Schinus molle berries had a slightly different chemical content because of where the tree was grown and the berries were safer to eat. Restaurateurs who had hailed the pink peppercorn as “the spice of the 80s” were happy.  The berries of Schinus molle do have the FDA’s GRAS status (Generally Recognized as Safe).

Indigenous people all around the world have found uses for the leaves, bark, berries, and roots of the Schinus molle tree. Some of these uses continue today.

  • A tea is made from the leaves in some African countries to treat respiratory problems.
  • Ethiopians use the leaves to repel houseflies.
  • A fumigant made from the essential oil has been found effective against bedbugs.
  • Extracts of the leaves and fruit have been found effective against some types of bacteria and against leukemia cells.
  • In New Zealand, the tree is the host plant for the giant gum emperor moth caterpillar.pepper corn Male_Emperor_Gum_Moth
  • In Mexico, a fermented drink called copalocle is made from the berries.
  • Fresh, green leaves were used in traditional cleansing and blessing ceremonies in Central America.
  • In Peru, the sap is used as a mild laxative and a diuretic, and the entire plant is used for fractures and as a topical antiseptic. The oleoresin is used externally as a vulnerary (wound healer), styptic (stops bleeding), and for toothaches, and it is taken internally for rheumatism and as a purgative.
  • Other traditional medicinal uses of the tree include using it as an astringent, diuretic, and expectorant. The ailments it is known to treat include menstrual disorders, bronchitis, gingivitis, gonorrhea, gout, tuberculosis, tumors, ulcers, urethritis, warts, wounds, and urogenital and venereal diseases.

The pink peppercorn is The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for February. For more information on Peruvian peppercorns, please visit The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month webpage. https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/herb-of-the-month.html

Photo Credits: 1) Pink peppercorn leaf and berries (Creative Commons); 2) Pink peppercorn tree (Forest and Kim Starr via Wikimedia Commons); 3) Wari Empire Kero chicha de molle mug (National Academy of Sciences of the United States Proceedings 11/25/05); 4) Giant emperor gum moth (Creative Commons)

References

American Forests. Champion Tree National Tree Register: Peppertree.  Sept. 15, 2016. https://www.americanforests.org/big-trees/peppertree-schinus-molle-2/  Accessed 14 Jan 2021.

Ewbank, Anne. “When people panicked over pink peppercorns.” https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/are-pink-peppercorns-poisonous September 18, 2018. Accessed 14 Jan. 2021.

Health Benefits Times. “ Know about the California Peppertree.” https://www.healthbenefitstimes.com/california-pepper-tree  Accessed 14 Jan. 2021.

Masters, Nathan. “When Pepper Trees Shaded the ‘Sunny Southland’.” KCET. September 13, 2013. https://www.kcet.org/shows/lost-la/when-pepper-trees-shaded-the-sunny-southland Accessed 14 Jan. 2021.

Moseley, Michael, etal. “Evaluating an ancient imperial colony.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States. Nov. 29, 2005. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4152467 Accessed 14 Jan. 2021

Valdez, Lidio M. “Molle beer production in a Peruvian central highland valley.” Journal of Anthropological Research 68, no. 1 (2012): 71-93. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23264591. Accessed 11 Jan. 2021

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.


Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America and a Master Gardener. She is a member of The Society’s Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.