Endemic to southern India—the state of Kerala, in particular—this plant’s berries have been traded as a valuable good starting as early as 1000 BCE. Today, black pepper has become one of the most commonly used spices in the world, finding a place on almost every table. Although considered a spice, this climbing vine actually produces berries which are fermented, dried, and crushed to create the powder that ends up in shakers. Due to its affinity for climbing, you will need to provide a trellis or fence in order for it to prosper. It should also be noted that it can be very difficult to start pepper plants from seeds, so use cuttings instead if possible.
The Malabar peppercorn originated in the region of Malabar, India and is one of the most widely-used pepper varietals in the world thanks to its sharp, earthy flavor that maintains its pungency even when cooked. Like most other varieties of peppercorn, the Malabar type prefers warm, humid climates and should be grown indoors or in a greenhouse in USDA Zones 1–9.
Seed Depth: 1/4″
Space Between Plants: 3″
Space Between Rows: 6″
Germination Soil Temperature: 80°F
Days for Germination: 30–35
Sow Indoors: If you do not live in the tropics.
Sow Outdoors: In early spring.
Vegetative: Take an 8–10 inch cutting from a pre-existing healthy peppercorn vine, splice the stem vertically about 1/2 of an inch, and place either in a wet paper towel for travel or cup of water immediately. Wait for roots to sprout. When multiple roots are visible, each a few inches long, plant in soil or soilless mix.
Piper nigrum is a tropical vine that cannot tolerate low temperatures or dry conditions. Therefore, zones that rarely dip below 60°F, receive plenty of rainfall, and maintain an average humidity are its natural habitat. The vine can be grown indoors only with proper lighting and pollination techniques. When growing indoors, spray foliage twice a week to mimic humidity.
Natural: Partial shade.
Artificial: Use fluorescent lamps a few feet away for up to 12 hours a day.
Soil: Well-drained and high in organic matter with a neutral pH. A sandy, loamy, virgin soil is best.
Soilless: Can germinate in soilless mix.
Hydroponics: Thrives in an ebb and flow hydroponic system.
Aeroponics: Can trive in an aeroponic system, but be mindful, since this plant needs plenty of moisture.
Water: Keep soil moist at all times: in India, plants receive anywhere from 60–160″ of rainfall a year! In drier areas, spray leaves with water to increase humidity.
Nutrients: Fertile soil yields best results. Demanding as it is, be sure to supplement soil with nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, and magnesium.
Foliar: This plant will benefit from an Epsom salt foliar spray to deliver fast and effective magnesium. Magnesium strengthens cell walls and improves uptake ability of major nutrients.
Pruning: Since this vine can grow up to 15 feet tall, pruning the tips to promote horizontal bushy growth can be beneficial.
Mulching: Keeps soil wetter for longer by decreasing exposure. Mulch is also a great way to reduce weeds.
Pest(s): The peppercorn is not threatened largely by pests, but watch for:
Rotation: Because of their high demand for nutrients, soil leeching can occur. The average life cycle of a healthy flowering fruiting peppercorn is from years 3–7. Rotate every 7 years if largely cultivating outdoors.
Companions: Grows well next to plants that prefer a similar climate, but offer benefits, such as cocoa. Also, trees with shaggy or rough bark can act as a natural trellises. Because of its demanding nature, however, the peppercorn does not have many friends.
Harvest: Similar to grapes, peppercorns are berry fruits clustered onto spikes hanging from the stems of the vine. Peppercorns ripen from the familiar unripe color of green to a nice rosy red. For black peppercorns like the Malabar, harvest the berries before they ripen to red. They will be a soft yellow. Boil briefly, allow to ferment, and let dry in the sun for several days. When they are fully dried, they will be wrinkled and blackened.
Storage: Store in an airtight container after drying for best results. Keep in a dark, cool cabinet for ultimate freshness.
History: Starting thousands of years ago, peppercorns were extremely valuable and used as a form of currency in ancient India, which gave rise to it’s nickname “black gold.” As travel became easier and more sources for pepper were discovered, the value began to decline, but even today, pepper is still one of the most widely produced and traded spices in the world.
Preserve: While ground pepper has an average shelf life of around 3 months, whole peppercorns can be kept indefinitely.
Prepare: Freshly ground pepper can be added to any dish.
Nutritional: Contains mainly vitamin(s) A, C, E, K, niacin, β-carotene, and traces of minerals such as iron, calcium, phosphorous.
Medicinal: Peppercorn has often been associated with treating digestive disorders. Extracts of Piper nigrum have also been known to exhibit antibacterial properties. It is a natural antioxidant and anti-inflammatory and holds anti-cancer, anti-periodic, and anti-pyretic benefits. It can also help to lower body’s cholesterol levels.
Warnings: Avoid eye contact.
Thai Black Pepper and Garlic Tofu is not only nutritious, it’s also delicious!
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