Black pepper is one of the world's most widely and frequently used spices all over the world.
Hot and pungent black pepper is one of the most popular spices in the world. Native to India, today it is cultivated all over the tropics as a commercial crop. India is the biggest producer.
Pepper plants are climbers which grow to a height or length of 10 m or more. When its main stem is established, it grows lots of side shoots to create a bushy column.
The plants form short roots, called adventitious roots, which connect to surrounding supports.
Although black pepper is cultivated in many tropical regions, it is native to Kerala State in India where it still occurs wild in the mountains.
Leaves - arranged alternately on the stems. They are shaped like almonds and taper towards the tip. They are dark green and shiny above but paler green below.
Flowers - grow in clusters along flowering stalks known as spikes. Between 50 to 150 whitish to yellow-green flowers are produced on a spike.
Fruits - the flowers develop into round, berry-like fruits. There may be 50-60 fruits on each spike. They grow to a diameter of 4 to 6 mm, each containing a single seed. Fruits are green at first but they turn red as they ripen. These fruits are picked when either green or red to produce black and white pepper.
Cultivation and harvest
In India, black pepper is grown under a variety of agricultural schemes ranging from home gardens, mixed crops in coffee plantations and monocrops on slopes and in valleys. Plantings are propagated by cuttings. Land is cleared, tilled and hoed, and hardwood supports are placed at intervals in the ground. Cuttings, once rooted, are planted close to the supports. As the stems grow, they climb the supports. After almost 3 years the plants are over 2 m tall and are bushy. They start flowering at the onset of rains. The fruits are picked by hand, and are harvested 6 to 8 times each season at 2 week intervals.
Varieties and types
There are more than 100 cultivars of black pepper in India with names such as 'Balamcotta', 'Kalluvalli' and 'Cheria Kaniakadan'. They are distinguished from each other in leaf shape and size and flowering and fruiting characteristics.
The same species is used to produce black, white and green peppercorns. It is also used to produce pepper oil and oleoresin. The oil is obtained by steam distillation of the fruits and the oleoresin by solvent extraction. They give a much stronger flavour than the spice and are mainly used in convenience foods.
To obtain black pepper, fruiting spikes are harvested when fruits are fully grown but still green and shiny. Fruit spikes are left in heaps overnight for brief fermentation. The next morning, the mass of spikes are usually spread out on bamboo mats or concrete floors to dry in the sun for about 4 to 5 days. They are raked regularly to help them dry out. Another processing method is to blanch the spikes and dry on a flat-bed dryer which reduces the drying time to about 7 hours.
Drying causes fruits to drop off the spikes. The fleshy outer layer of the fruit shrinks giving the characteristic crinkled appearance of black pepper. Dried peppercorns are then bagged ready for sale.
White pepper fetches a higher market price. To prepare it the fruit spikes are collected when slightly riper than for black pepper. The spikes are lightly crushed, put in sacks and soaked for 7-10 days, preferably in slow running water. The fleshy outer layer of the fruit disintegrates. Fruits are then trampled loose from the spike and separated by washing and sieving. The washed peppercorns are dried in the sun for 3-4 days, during which the white-cream colour develops. Dried peppercorns are bagged and stored.
Green pepper is made from immature green fruits. They are dehydrated and bagged, or are preserved by bottling or canning in vinegar or brine. It is used as a spice and can be ground or cracked as black and white pepper.
Black pepper - traditional medicine
Black peppercorns feature as remedies in Ayurveda, Siddha and Unani medicine in South Asia. In Ayurveda the fruits are valued for a range of properties including its hot, light and anti-flatulent effects. It is most frequently used to treat problems associated with the digestive system, particularly to eradicate parasitic worms and as an appetizer. Some of its traditional uses are supported by scientific evidence.
Black pepper remedies
In Ayurvedic medicine black pepper has been used to aid digestion, improve the appetite, treat coughs, colds, breathing and heart problems, colic, diabetes, anaemia and piles. Stomach ailments such as dyspepsia, flatulence, constipation and diarrhoea are all treated with black pepper, which may be mixed with other substances such as castor oil, cow's urine or ghee.
Black pepper has been prepared in the form of pills as a remedy for cholera and syphilis, sometimes combined with other substances. It has also been used in tooth powder for toothache and an infusion of black pepper has been described as a remedy for sore throat and hoarseness. Alternatively black pepper could be chewed to reduce throat inflammation.
Externally it has been applied in paste form to boils and to treat hair loss and some skin diseases. Oil of pepper is reputed to alleviate itching. A mixture of sesame oil and powdered black pepper is described as an application for areas affected by paralysis. A mixture of black pepper and honey is regarded as a remedy for night blindness. In comatose patients black pepper has been given by inhalation. It is also believed to be useful in hepatitis, urinary and reproductive disorders. In Ayurveda and Siddha medicine, a paste is made using white pepper is applied to treat some eye diseases.
In Unani medicine, black pepper has been described as an aphrodisiac and as a remedy to alleviate colic. A preparation called 'jawa rishai thurush' is composed of pepper, ginger, salt, lemon juice and the plants vidanga (Embelia ribes) and mint (Menthaspecies). It has been prescribed to alleviate indigestion and stomach acidity.
Black pepper - western medicine
Black pepper is not as widely used in conventional medicine as it is in traditional. It is sometimes added to tonics and in preparations to deliberately cause a reddening of the skin, known as rubefacients. Scientific investigations have found that black pepper may have a number of properties that could be potentially beneficial to the health.
Black peppercorns contain compounds called alkaloids. One of these is piperine. It is reported to act as a central nervous system depressant and to have anti-fever, pain relieving, anti-inflammatory and insecticidal effects. Some experiments suggest black pepper and its constituent piperine may have some potential in the treatment of vitiligo as it helps increase pigmentation in the skin.
Black pepper is also reported to have anti-fungal and anti-oxidant properties.
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