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.

Parsley – Herb of the Month and Herb of the Year

By Maryann Readal

The spotlight is shining on parsley this month. Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) is The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for January and the International Herb Association’s Herb of the Year for 2021. The three most common varieties of parsley are P. crispum or curly-leaf parsley,  P. crispum var. neapolitanum or flat-leaf Italian parsley, and P. crispum var. tuberosum or turnip-root parsley which is grown for its root and is used in soups and stews.

Parsley has an interesting history dating back to Greek and Roman times. To the Greeks, parsley symbolized death and was not used in cooking. However, according to Homer, the Greeks fed parsley to their chariot horses as they thought it gave them strength. The Greeks believed that parsley sprang from the blood of one of their mythical heroes, Archemorus, whose name means “the beginning of bad luck.” From then on parsley had an association with death and misfortune. Victorious athletes in the Nemean games were crowned with wreaths of parsley, symbolizing the contest’s origin as a funeral game dedicated to Archemorus. The Greeks had a saying: “De ‘eis thai selinon” (to need parsley), which meant that a person was near death. They also decorated their tombs with parsley.

parsley italianThe Romans, on the other hand, wore wreaths of parsley to ward off intoxication and used it at meals to mask the smell of garlic. Perhaps this is where the idea of parsley as a garnish originated. It is said that the Romans also covered corpses with parsley to cover the smell of decay. 

The Romans and the Greeks used parsley as a medicine. Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE), in Chapter 20 of his book The Natural History, talks about using a decoction of parsley seeds for  kidney troubles and ulcers in the mouth, and goes on to say that “fish also, if they are sickly in ponds,  are revived by fresh parsley.”  

The Romans brought parsley to England, where colorful folklore arose around the herb, much of it centering around death and ill luck. In Devonshire, it was believed that transplanting parsley would offend the guardians of the parsley bed and that the person doing the transplanting would be punished within the year. In Surrey, it was believed that if someone cut parsley, that person would be crossed in love. In Suffolk, it was thought that parsley should be sown on Good Friday to ensure it coming up double. It was believed that when planting the seeds of parsley, the seed went to the devil nine times and back, with the devil keeping some of the seeds for himself.  This may have been an explanation for the slow germination of parsley seeds. 

parsley root school projectParsley began to be eaten during the Middle Ages.  Charlemagne was said to have grown large quantities of parsley in his gardens for this purpose. Early immigrants brought parsley to the Americas where it was used as a culinary herb.

The association of parsley with death and misfortune played out again in 1937 with the execution of Haitian immigrants in the Dominican Republic. An immigrant’s safety depended on if they could pronounce the word “parsley” correctly. This was called the Parsley Massacre and you can read about this tragic piece of history connected with parsley at https://www.ibtimes.com/parsley-massacre-genocide-still-haunts-haiti-dominican-relations-846773.

parsley pestoParsley is a versatile herb in the kitchen. It adds brightness when sprinkled over any finished dish, and is good in salad dressings, soups and stews. It is one of the ingredients in fines herbes, the French persillade, South American chimichurri, and Mexican salsa verde. The Japanese deep fry parsley in tempura batter, and the Swiss serve deep fried parsley with their fondue. And of course, it is used in pesto. It truly is a universal herb.  Herbalist Madalene Hill, former President of The Herb Society of America, in her book Southern Herb Growing, says that her green butter recipe “should accompany most steaks and that its use will probably relegate the steak sauce and ketchup bottle to the back of the refrigerator where they belong.”  Her recipe is simply one stick of softened butter combined with two cups of finely chopped parsley and one tablespoon of lemon juice.

Parsley is a biennial herb and is easy to grow in moist soil in sun or part shade. It is a good companion plant in the garden, warding off asparagus beetles.  Tomatoes, peas, carrots, peppers and corn will also benefit by having parsley nearby.  The flowers attract bees and hoverflies which eat aphids and thrips. It is also said to improve the scent of roses and keeps them healthier. I like to use parsley as a border plant in my garden, which the Greek and Medieval gardeners were also fond of doing. A benefit of including parsley in your garden is that it is a host plant for the swallowtail butterfly, which will frequently lay eggs on the plant.

Parsley swallowtailWithout a doubt, parsley does have medicinal benefits. It is high in vitamins A, C, and K, and contains antioxidants. The leaf, seed, and root are used in medicine. People have used it to treat bladder infections, kidney stones, gastrointestinal disorders, and high blood pressure. Some apply parsley to the skin to lighten dark patches and bruises. It is also used for insect bites.  Pregnant women are advised not to take parsley in medicinal amounts, as it increases menstrual flow and has been used to cause abortion.

For more information on parsley, go to The Herb Society’s Herb of the Month web page and the Essential Facts for Parsley.

Photo Credits: 1) Curly leaf parsley (Amanda Slater); 2) Italian parsley (Maryann Readal); 3) Parsley root (schoolphotoproject.com); 4) Parsley pesto (Wikimedia Commons); 5) Swallowtail caterpillar (Wikimedia Commons) 

References

Fowler, Marie. Herbs in Greek mythology. The Herbarist. 2010. 

Gardening Know How. Information about parsley. https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/edible/herbs/parsley  Accessed 12/13/20.

Ghosh, Palash. Parsley Massacre:  The genocide that still haunts Haiti-Dominican relations. International Business Times. https://www.ibtimes.com/parsley-massacre-genocide-still-haunts-haiti-dominican-relations-846773  Accessed 12/21/20.

The Herb Society of America. Essential facts for parsley. https://herbsocietyorg.presencehost.net/file_download/inline/140a12b8-0fe0-4a52-ac2c-2b61ea6e786a Accessed 12/22/20.

Hill, Madalene and Barclay, Gwen. Southern Herb Growing. Fredericksburg, TX., Shearer. 1997.

History of parsley-Proverbs & folklore.  http://www.ourherbgarden.com/herb-history/parsley.html Accessed 12/15/20.

Pliny the Elder. Natural History.  Internet Archive. http://www.attalus.org/info/pliny_hn.html Accessed 12/21/20.

WebMD. Parsley. https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-792/parsley Accessed 12/22//20.

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.