Piper nigrum: Black pepper

Family: Piperaceae
Common name: Black pepper, Pepper, Peppercorn, Kurumulaku, Kali mirch

Known as the King of Spices, Black pepper is very commonly used in Indian cuisine, and the plants are very commonly seen in South India. It is said to have been exported from Kerala, the southernmost state of India from as early as the 1st century BC.

They were also used as currency since it was one of the most sought-after spices in world trade.

Black pepper plants can grow to a height of 8-10 meters, climbing on trees and supporting structures. The long stem is capable of rooting at the nodes, producing adventitious roots that can grab onto trees and other structures. They prefer trees with rough barks so that roots can take hold of the crevices or fissures.

Leaves are almost oval, almost heart-shaped, dark green on top and dull green below, and about 8-12 cms long. Black pepper plants produce tiny flowers on long spikes which are 6-8 cms long. Once the flowers turn into small rounded fruits, the spikes lengthen to about 15 cms.

Peppercorns hanging from the vines look very pretty indeed, closely packed balls of dark green fruits which turn red when they mature. Once the first few fruits turn red, the peppercorns can be harvested since red fruits are not as spicy or pungent as the green ones.

Peppercorns are boiled lightly, before drying in the sun for many days to produce the black peppercorns we normally see, with a thin flaky outer skin. White peppercorns are produced from red fruits soaked in water for a few days to soften the skin, which is then removed by mechanical, chemical, or manual methods. Green and red peppercorns are made by drying the green and red fruits with certain chemicals added, to retain the color.

Leaves and fruits of the black pepper smell sweet and pungent; unripe fruits have a slight sweetness to them. Green and red fruits are also used in cooking since they are not as hot as dried ones. Peppercorns are used in cuisines all over the world, to add heat and warmth to dishes.

The heat comes from a chemical called piperine, which is different from capsaicin, which is found in chilies and capsicum. Salt and pepper shakers commonly seen in most restaurants around the world vouch for how many cuisines prefer the subtle heat of pepper as opposed to chilies.

Black pepper plants need good rainfall and warm tropical weather to grow well; along with rich, well-drained soil and frequent fertilization. The plants start producing fruits after 4-5 years of growth, a single plant producing 40-60 spikes of fruits.

They can grow for 10-15 years producing fruits every season. There are other variants of black pepper that grow as small bushy plants, which can be easily grown in home gardens and balconies.

In addition to being used as a spice, Black pepper also has many medicinal uses in the treatment of stomach ailments, worms, colds, chest congestion, fever, heart diseases, diabetes, colic, diarrhea, sore throat, hair loss, skin diseases, rabies, night blindness, urinary diseases, and eye diseases.

Leaves and fruits of peppercorn are part of age-old home remedies for common ailments in children; in addition to being used extensively in Ayurveda and Siddha medicines.

Propagation is through stem cuttings.