Photo by Chuck Hubbuch
The genus Piper is one of the members of a comparatively small plant family, the Piperaceae. However, it is a fairly large genus of one to two thousand species that occur naturally throughout the world’s tropics. Piper species may be shrubby or vining. Several are attractive enough to be cultivated in gardens and a few have important values as food and medicine. Only a few are sufficiently cold-hardy to be grown outdoors in north Florida.
A few Piper species have important commercial value. Black and white pepper are produced from the fruits of Piper nigrum. These have been used by people for centuries and are among the most widely used spices today. Black pepper comes from grinding the entire dried fruit and seed. For white pepper, the flesh of the fruit is removed and the clean seed is ground.
Although rare in the United States, the fruits of other Piper species are used to produce spices in other parts of the world. Kava is a popular drink produced from Piper mythysticum in Polynesia and sometimes other parts of the world. It is noted for having a relaxing effect without causing sleepiness. The leaves of the betel plant, Piper betle, are combined with the seeds of the betel nut palm and eaten as a stimulant. In parts of tropical Asia, it serves a purpose much like drinking coffee.
The leaves of a few other species are used as food or flavoring. One of these, the root beer plant or Piper auritum, can be found in home gardens in Jacksonville. It is a vigorous plant in the right setting with big, bold leaves. These leaves are used to add aroma and flavor to cooking and to make tea and a liquor in Mexico. It contains a chemical, safrole, which has been found to be cancer-causing in lab animals by the USDA so it should not be consumed in large quantities. The leaves of another species, Piper sarmentosum, are eaten fresh or cooked as a vegetable in southeast Asia.
Several Piper species are used locally as traditional medicines. One of them is Piper kadsura from Japan. It has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties in lab testing. This plant is cold-hardy in Jacksonville. It is a small vine and looks much like a heart-leaf philodendron but will grow up the trunk of a tree outdoors. A variegated form called ‘Pied Piper’ is in the nursery trade.
We call other plants by the name “pepper”, too. Bell pepper and jalapeno are in the genus Capsicum and the family Solanaceae. They are very distant relatives of the black pepper and the other Piper species.
Winter at the Jacksonville Arboretum and Gardens is too cold for most Piper species. However, Piper auritum can be seen in the east garden off the lake loop path. Piper kadsura and Piper sarmentosum are cold hardy species that we will be adding to the Arboretum collection in the near future.
by Chuck Hubbuch