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 cream 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.
The 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.
The 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.
- 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)
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.