Helpful Herbs: Black Pepper

Did you know you can grow and harvest your own black peppercorns?  If you can keep the plant warm enough, you can cultivate this vine and provide your family with home harvested table pepper.

The plant that produces the peppercorns we’re used to grinding up on our food is called the Black Pepper plant.  The leaves are reminiscent of other plants in the pepper family, and it is a climbing vine that can creep up to 15 feet high.  Black Pepper is a perennial, though it won’t survive cold winters.  They love it hot and humid, not tolerating temperatures below 65 degrees Fahrenheit.

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While you can’t cultivate Black Pepper outdoors in colder climates, it can still thrive in a greenhouse environment.  In fact, because it loves humidity, a greenhouse is often the ideal place to grow Black Pepper.  The plants can be started from seed, and seedlings are readily available through online seed catalogs.  They also thrive when grown from cuttings off an original plant.

Black Pepper will grow well in a pot or in the ground, as long the temperature and humidity are high. It can take up to three years for them to produce fruit, and keeping them warm enough can be a challenge.  However, when they do fruit, you will see long clusters of small, round berries that ripen from green to red.  Once they’ve turned red, you can harvest and dry them.  Dried peppercorns are black, and resemble exactly the grocery-store variety.

Pepper is a flavoring ingredient in countless recipes.  A pinch here and a teaspoon there turns an ordinary dish from bland to tasty.  Whole black peppercorns are used in pickling mixes, and the seeds can be cracked in salads and on meat in addition to the usual grinding.

What you might not know is that peppercorns are also used for healing.  Black Pepper is a digestive aid, so while it’s flavoring your meal it’s also helping you avoid indigestion.  Peppercorns are full of antioxidants, and are taken to help prevent colds and the flu in herbal remedies such as fire cider.  Regularly eating pepper can help to improve memory and the essential oil from pepper can be used to reduce nicotine cravings.  Peppercorns are also full of vitamin C, vitamin A, potassium, calcium, and iron.

Black Pepper has been one of the most prized and desirable herbs throughout history.  Native to Southeast Asia, Black Pepper was a crucial part of the spice trade and was considered more valuable than gold, often being used as legal currency during the Middle Ages.

The history of the Black Pepper is so rich, it is difficult to mention every tradition it was part of.  Referred to as the “King of Spices”, peppercorns were used in Egyptian mummification rituals and it was considered so valuable that the workers who harvested it wore clothing without pockets to prevent any theft.  Today, the phrase “pepper expensive” in Dutch still means something of high value.  While it’s rumored that the spice was primarily used to flavor the taste of otherwise rotten meat in the Middle Ages, it is likely that the only ones who could afford pepper as a flavoring agent were the very wealthy, who no doubt ate unspoiled meats.

Because peppercorn was so integral to the spice trade that it was a key ingredient in many wars and explorations of our world during the Age of Discovery.  In ancient herb lore, peppercorns were used to treat toothaches, constipation, and insomnia.  However, its main uses in ancient times were culinary.

Black Pepper remains one of the most popular spices in the world, accounting for about 1/5 of the world’s spice trade.  Growing your own is a great way to eliminate dependence your grocery store, and to have part of world history in your garden.


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