Pipers, the pepper Plants

by Alex Butova, the Witch of Herbs and Cats

Alexandra Butova is our columnist, journalist, and photographer, living in Riga, Latvia. She has has been with TopTropicals since Day One (2002), writing about magic plants, travel, and of course cats - from the CatNation she belongs to. Alex is in charge of TopTropicals.ru website.



Pipers, the Pepper Plants

...Who doesn't know Black Pepper? Every household has a pepper shaker, even if they are not fans of spicy food. But do you know where black pepper comes from? Certainly, from a plant. But not from the same plant that gives us Chili pepper! You will be surprised to know that Black pepper along with its other spicy relatives, belong to the same family as a Peperomia houseplant! The scientific name Piper and the common name "Pepper" are derived from the Sanskrit term pippali, denoting the long pepper (Piper longum). In the 16th century, people began using name pepper to also mean the unrelated New World Chili pepper (genus Capsicum of family Solanaceae). Piper's spiciness is due to the chemical compound piperine, which is a different kind of spicy from the capsaicin characteristic of Chili peppers...

Do you like hot stuff? Mother Nature has something special for you!

Piper, the genus of pepper plants or pepper vines, is economically and ecologically important in the family Piperaceae. It contains about 1,000-2,000 species of shrubs, herbs, and lianas, many of which are dominant species in their native habitat. Piper species have a pantropical distribution, and are most commonly found in the understory of lowland tropical forests, but can also occur in clearings and in higher elevation life zones such as cloud forests; one species (Japanese pepper, Piper Kadsura, from Southern Japan and Southern Korea) is subtropical and can tolerate some frost.

Most piper species are either herbaceous or vines; some grow as shrubs or almost as small trees. 

The fruit of the piper plant, called a Peppercorn usually round and pea-sized,mis distributed in the wild mainly by birds, and small fruit-eating mammals (bats . Despite the high content of chemicals that are noxious to herbivores, some have evolved the ability to withstand the chemical defences of pepper plants.

The most significant human use of piper is not for its looks however, but ultimately for the wide range of powerful secondary compounds found particularly in the fruit. They use peppers in culinary, in medicine and… in science!

Piper is a model genus for research in ecology and evolutionary biology. The diversity and ecological importance of the genus makes it a strong candidate for ecological and evolutionary studies. Most research has focused on the economically important species Piper nigrum (Black Pepper), Piper betle (Betel Leaf), Piper sarmentosum (Lalot), Piper auritum (false Kava-Kava, or Root Beer Plant) and Piper methysticum (Kava-Kava).

Piper nigrum

Culinary use of pepper plants is attested perhaps as early as 9,000 years ago. Peppercorn remains were found among the food refuse at spirit cave in Thailand. It is likely that these plants were collected from the wild rather than deliberately grown. Use of peppercorns as pungent spice is significant on an international scale. By classical antiquity, there was a vigorous trade of spices including Black Pepper (Piper nigrum) from south Asia to Europe. The book of a recipe collection complied about 400 AD, mentions "pepper" as a spice for most main dishes. In the late roman empire, black pepper was expensive, but was available readily enough to be used more frequently than salt or sugar.

Read more about Piper nigrum...

Due to the wide distribution of piper, the fruit of other species are also important spices, many of them internationally. Not only the seeds of piper are used in cooking. West African pepper leaves are used as a flavoring vegetable in local stews.

Piper auritum

In Mexican-influenced cooking Piper auritum has a variety of uses (Read more about Piper auritum). In southeast Asia, leaves of two species of piper have major importance in cooking: Piper sarmentosum - Lolot (read more about Piper sarmentosum) is used to wrap meat for grilling or cooked as a vegetable; while the stems and roots of Piper chaba are used as a spice.

Piper sarmentosum

Different peppers have been used in folk medicine and herbalism; it is used to intoxicate fish which then can be easily caught. Spiked pepper Piper aduncum, often called Matico, appears to have strong disinfectant and antibiotic properties.

Piper aduncum

Black pepper (Piper nigrum) essential oil is sometimes used in herbalism, and long pepper (Piper longum) is similarly employed in Ayurveda, where it was an ingredient of Triphala guggulu and (together with black pepper) of Trikatu pills, used for rejuvenating and detoxifying purposes.

One piper species has gained large-scale use as a stimulant. Betel Leaf (Piper betle) leaves are used to wrap betel palm nut slices; its sap helps release the stimulating effect of these "cookies" which are widely known as paan in India (Read more about Piper betle)

Piper betle

Conversely, another piper species, kava-kava (Piper methysticum), is used for its depressant and euphoriant effects. In the Pacific region, where it has been widely spread as a canoe plant, kava is used to produce a calming and socializing drink somewhat similar to alcohol and benzodiazapines but without many of the negative side effects and less of an addiction risk. It has also become popular elsewhere in recent decades, and is used as a medical plant.

Piper methysticum

However, pills that contain parts of the whole plant have occasionally shown a strong hepatotoxic effect, which has led to the banning of kava-kava in many countries. On the other hand, the traditional preparation of the root as a calming drink appears to pose little, if any, such hazard.

Many pepper plants make good ornamentals for gardens in subtropical or warmer regions and suitable as indoor pot plants.
Peppers are a plant of humid tropics requiring high rainfall and humidity. It grows successfully between temperatures between 50-100F. The ideal temperature is 75 -90F with an average of 80F. They do not like temperatures below 48F but most of them can survive a few hours of a chill night, as long as it is above freezing.

Peppers can grow in full sun exposure if watered enough but prefer a semi-shaded or shaded exposure. They enjoy humid air but don't like wet feet, so let the soil slightly dry between waterings.

Fertilize  with natural SUNSHINE Robusta fertilizer, as often as with every watering, and you will have a happy, robust, and productive plant for all your culinary and medicinal needs.

In more details:

Piper nigrum - Black Pepper

As Europe moved into the early middle ages, trade routes deteriorated and the use of pepper declined somewhat, but peppercorns, storing easily and having a high mass per volume, never ceased to be a profitable trade item. Later, wars were fought by European powers, between themselves and in complex alliances and enmities with Indian ocean states, in part about control of the supply of spices, perhaps the most archetypal being black pepper fruit. Today, peppercorns of the three preparations (green, white and black) are one of the most widely used spices of plant origin worldwide.

Piper nigrum  is native to the Malabar Coast of India, and is extensively cultivated there and in other tropical regions. It is the world's most traded spice, and is one of the most common spices added to cuisines around the world. The pepper plant is a spreading vine, rooting readily where trailing stems touch the ground. The flowers are small, produced on pendulous spikes four to 3in long at the leaf nodes, the spikes lengthening as the fruit matures. A single stem will bear 20 to 30 fruiting spikes. The harvest begins as soon as one or two berries at the base of the spikes begin to turn red, and before the fruit is mature, but when full grown and still hard; if allowed to ripen, the berries lose pungency, and ultimately fall off and are lost.

Black pepper fruit is dried and used as a spice and seasoning. The fruit, known as a peppercorn when dried, is a small drupe, dark red when fully mature, containing a single seed. Depending on harvest time and processing, peppercorns can be black, white, green and red (reddish-brown). So, the same fruit is also used to produce white pepper, red/pink pepper, and green pepper.

While black and white pepper were already known in antiquity, but green pepper (and even more, red pepper) is a recent invention. The pungency is strongest in white pepper and weakest in green pepper, while black and green pepper are more aromatic than the white one. Green peppercorn has a somewhat immature, herbaecous fragrance. Red peppercorns combine a sugary-sweet taste with the mature pungency and flavor of black pepper.

Black pepper berries owe their peppery or acrid taste to the alkaloid piperine, which is present in quantities of up to 9% in the dried berries. Piperine by its action has a stimulating effect on the digestive tract and circulatory system. Piperine acts as rubefacient, causing dilation of the capillaries, thereby increasing blood circulation to areas of the body it passes through. It is sometimes added to topical ointments and creams for this effect and has shown promise in the treatment of some skin problems, and many other medical conditions.

The vine can be easily grown in a pot on a trellis, 3 to 7 gal containers will be the suitable size for its successful cultivation and harvesting. In mild climates with winter temperatures above freezing, the plant can be grown in the ground providing a tree support.

More info: Black Pepper Vine - grow a real spice at home.

Piper betle

Piper betle originated in Southern and Southeast Asia. It is a branching vine, that may climb as high as 10-15ft, although it often grows as an understory ground cover. The plant prefers warm, humid conditions, but can tolerate some drought. It is generally too tender to grow outside of the tropics. It needs a compatible tree or a long pole for support. 

Betel leaf is mostly consumed in Asia, and elsewhere in the world by some Asian emigrants, as betel quid or in paan, with areca nut and/or tobacco. Leaves have long been used both in traditional medicine and as modern remedies. In India and Sri Lanka, a sheaf of betel leaves is traditionally offered as a mark of respect and auspicious beginnings in traditional Indian culture. Occasions include greeting elders at wedding ceremonies, celebrating the New Year, and offering payment to physicians and astrologers (to whom money and/or areca nut, placed on top of the sheaf of leaves, are offered in thanks for blessings). A betel leaf is much more than just a mouth freshener. People eat leaves after a wholesome meal to refresh their mouth and mood. But its goodness doesn’t stop here. There are many more unbelievable benefits of betel leaves that most of us don’t know. From being used in sacred rituals to medicines, betel leaves have a lot of hidden benefits to them.

It is used in a number of traditional remedies for the treatment of stomach ailments, infections, and as a general tonic. Some evidence suggests that betel leaves have immune boosting properties as well as anti-cancer properties. The essential oil is produced by steam distillation from the leaves of Piper betle. Betel Leaf Oil is yellow to brown with a distinctly phenolic, almost tar-like or smoky. Betel leaves promote faster wound healing as this has antioxidants in them. For external wounds, it is suggested to apply betel juice on the injured area and cover it with a betel leaf, and secure it with a bandage to allow the juice to soothe the wound.

Betel leaf has great anti-inflammatory properties that can effectively treat joint pain by reducing joint inflammation. You need to apply betel juice in the joints externally for significant pain relief. This is also good for people who have arthritis as it soothes their aching joints to relieve pain.

Betel leaves are exceptionally good for stomach health and digestion. These are loaded with anti-flatulent, gastroprotective and carminative properties to boost digestion and cure stomach-related ailments with immediate effect. Apart from this, it also helps in proper and quicker absorption of essential vitamins and minerals in the body.
Along with anti-inflammatory properties, betel leaves are also loaded with antimicrobial properties. This helps to treat bad breath by eliminating mouth odor-causing bacteria. Alongside this, it restores the pH level of the mouth for better oral health.

Betel leaves are high in fiber which is good for weight loss. Eating these regularly boosts metabolic rate to keep fatigue at bay. One betel leaf every day would lower your weight. It helps the body to increase the secretion of digestive juices that help in digestion and detoxifying the body.

A lot of people consume betel leaves to soothe their sore throat. The antibacterial and anti-inflammatory benefits of betel soothe a sore throat. You may either chew a betel leaf or prepare betel juice and drink. As per Ayurveda, erectile dysfunctioncan be treated with betel leaves as these work to relax blood vessels in the body. Men who are dealing with this issue are advised to chew one or two betel leaves daily.

It may also be used in cooking, usually raw, for its peppery taste. 

Piper sarmentosum

Piper sarmentosum is found from the tropical areas of Southeast Asia, Northeast India and South China, and as far as the Andaman Islands. The leaves are often confused with Piper betle but they lack the intense taste of the betel leaves and are significantly smaller. Piper lolot (lalot) is now known to be the same species. Under this name it is cultivated for its leaf which is used in Lao and Vietnamese cuisine as a flavoring wrap for grilling meats. There is no "official" English name for it, but it is sometimes called Wild Betel.
This plant is a fast growing perennial spreading vine with creeping rhizomes, and a striped stem that grow to 1ft tall. Its leaves are thin, heart-shaped, 3-4in long, with 5 main veins from the base of the blade, oil glands on the upper surface, and finely pubescent veins on its underneath side. Erect white spikes of about 1in long emerge at the axils.
The practice of wrapping meat in vine leaves originated in the Middle East, which was taken to India by the Persians. It was subsequently introduced by the Indians to Southeast Asia. However, grape vines do not grow well in tropical climates, so the Vietnamese started to use leaves of lolot instead. It is native to the Indochinese region and recently introduced to the United States by Lao and Vietnamese immigrants.

Piper sarmentosum leaves are used in traditional Asian medicines. It is used for medicinal purposes, to relieve a wide range of symptoms from inflammation to snake bites. Chemical analysis has shown the leaves contain the antioxidant naringenin. Amides from Piper sarmentosum fruit have been shown to have anti-tuberculosis and anti-plasmodial activities.

Piper auritum 

If all the species of peppers listed above come from Asia and Pacific. Our next Piper is native to South America. He is true brujo – witch doctor, one that works in magic and medicine. It's name is Piper auritum. Common names include Hoja Santa and Yerba Santa (hoja santa - sacred leaf and yerba santa - sacred grass in Spanish). It is also called Root Beer Plant for the flavor.
Piper auritum is close relative of Piper methysticum (Kava-Kava), and Piper nigrum (Black Pepper), however unlike them it is not a vine but perennial herbaceous shrub with heart-shaped velvety leaves. In its native range and other tropical areas it can grow up to nearly 20ft tall. The plant spreads via rhizome roots that send up new shoots. 

The complex flavor is not so easily described; it has been compared to eucalyptus, licorice, anise, sassafras, nutmeg, mint, tarragon, and black pepper. The flavor is stronger in the young stems and veins.

The plants will grow out from roots so it can spread in ideal conditions. Flowers are long, skinny, white, and fuzzy looking. They can bloom from mid-summer to early fall. In good conditions flowering and fruiting occurs throughout the year.

It is often used in Mexican cuisine; fish or meat wrapped in its fragrant leaves for cooking, and as an essential ingredient in mole verde, a green sauce originally from the Oaxaca region of Mexico. It is also used to flavor eggs and snail soup, it is used to flavor chocolate drinks. In southeastern Mexico, a green liquor called Verdín is made from Hoja Santa. It is also used for tea. In some regions of Mexico, goat cheese is wrapped in these leaves and imbued with its flavor.

While typically used fresh, it is also used dried, although the drying process removes much of the flavor and makes the leaf too brittle to be used as a wrapper.

Piper auritum is used for a variety of medicinal purposes in Central and South Americas countries. They brew the leaves to make an infusion that is given to women to facilitate childbirth or stimulate menstrual flow, and the leaf tea is also used as a digestive, a tea of Piper auritum leaves is used to ease menstrual pain and encourage lactation.  The Yucatec Maya apply the leaves directly to wounds, also on to the head to cure headaches. In Colombia, the leaves are ground to make a poultice used for snakebites, the juice of the leaves is used to remove ticks.

Given its wide usage among indigenous groups, Piper auritum has been the subject of several pharmacological studies. This research has indicated antifungal, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, anticancer, antidiabetic, antiulcer and antiprotozoal properties.  The plants essential oil demonstrates antibacterial, insecticidal properties, and is effective as a repellent.  A recent study suggests that extracts of Piper auritum are effective as an anti-venom for snake bites.
Piper auritum is very often confused with Piper methysticum (kava-kava), and probably has some similar effects and is referred to as false kava-kava. The two plants can be distinguished easily as only Piper auritum leaves display the anise-like smell when crushed or rubbed, and their leaves have different vein patterns.

See more articles by Alex Butova