Black pepper (Piper nigrum) is, like cinnamon, a tropical spice that was well known in antiquity.
The plant probably originated in Sri Lanka or the southwestern coast of India (Kerala region). However, given the very large number of varietal forms found throughout Sri Lanka, logic suggests that this island was the original birthplace of the species.
The ancient spice trade never ceases to amaze me, as I discover the extent of trade routes from Southeast Asia to the cities of ancient Egypt and the Mediterranean region.
The well-known Pharaoh Ramses the second who died over 3000 years ago (date of death was 1213 BC) was found to have his nostrils stuffed with black peppercorns during the mummification process. A real testament to trade in spices between the sub-continent and the Middle East all those years ago.
Piper nigrum is a scrambling tropical vine that thrives in rainforest fringes in the wild. It needs other plants to scramble over and secures itself to plants with rough bark or stems with short rootlets.
Black and white pepper come from the same plant. When the berries (drupes) first start to show any red colour, the entire fruit spike is harvested and sun dried. A quick dip in boiling water prior to the drying procedure hastens the drying out of the skin and flesh covering the seed. This then is the black peppercorn that has pride of place in all modern kitchens.
White pepper is produced when the berries are allowed to fully ripen on the vine. After harvest, they are soaked in water for several days, until flesh and skin ferment and slough off. Often the slurry is hand kneaded or trampled, to hasten the removal of skin and flesh, then the seeds are washed clean and sun dried. These cleaned seeds are the source of white pepper, which is favoured in Chinese cooking.
Piper nigrum grows easily from cuttings, when taken in the early wet season. Usually cuttings around 30 cms long are used. However, there is a trick that Sri Lankan growers always use. When vigorous new shoots are used as cuttings, they will root quickly and grow rapidly. However, they will continue to exhibit vegetative (juvenile) growth habits for several years and be slow to produce fruit until 3 or 4 years old.
What the experienced Sri Lankan grower does is take his cuttings from well-established fruiting plants and ONLY uses stems that have previously fruited, as his cutting source. He will discard the lush vigorous tips completely.
Such cuttings are a little slower to take root and may need some extra care until well established plants are produced, but the advantage is that the plant remains in a semi-mature state and very quickly produces flower spikes and subsequent berries.
Piper nigrum needs well drained, humus rich soil, adequate year-round water and light dappled shade to grow well and produce a good crop of fruit.
Provided with good growing conditions, the vine will often produce a spike of berries from every leaf node.
Commercially, the vine is grown on fences of rough bush timber or several plants are placed around the trunks of established, light foliaged trees or palms.
In the home garden, a suitable tree, trellis or even a wire fence provides a suitable support and the glossy heart shaped leaves make a dramatic feature in any semi-shaded position. When the peppercorns appear, they are very decorative as well as being a great asset to any adventurous cook.
The species can make a very decorative hanging basket plant in a dappled light area and will often fruit even in this situation. Young growth can also make an interesting indoor plant, resembling a Philodendron, but is unlikely to bear any fruit.
Piper nigrum plants last about 20 years, but production of fruit tapers off after about 15 years and at this age, they are generally replaced in commercial situations with new plants propagated from growth that has borne some fruit already.
One technique I have seen used effectively in the home garden, is to plant 3 rooted cuttings near the edge of a large tub of compost rich soil. A frame made of chicken wire or fencing mesh shaped like a cone is then placed in the tub and the plants allowed to completely cover the wire.
In the tropics, this arrangement produces ample peppercorns, carried for most of the year, to satisfy any gardener/cook; and the bonus is a most attractive specimen plant that will fit in most gardens.
The glossy young leaves are used, along with other Piper species, in a wide range of ethnic dishes, and are also used in certain religious events.