Money doesn't grow on trees, but cultivating a peppercorn plant was almost the same thing hundreds of years ago. During the middle ages, spices like pepper were more valuable than gold, as they were extremely scarce, yet coveted both for their value as a condiment (often to disguise the flavor of spoiled meat), as well as for medicinal purposes. Although peppercorns have lost much of their monetary value, the exotic appeal of the plant still holds today. Furthermore, spices like pepper are riding the wave of the healthy eating trend, as scientists learn more about the disease fighting properties of these little wonder plants. In fact, a study published in the journal Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition explores the "antioxidant, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, gastro-protective, and antidepressant activities of black pepper." Grow the peppercorn plant at home, and capture the culinary and health benefits of pepper you raised yourself.
- Botanical Name: Piper nigrum
- Common Name: Peppercorn plant
- Plant Type: Tropical perennial vine
- Mature Size: 10 to 30 feet
- Sun Exposure: Full sun
- Soil Type: Rich and loamy
- Soil pH: Slightly acidic; 6.0 to 7.0
- Bloom Time: Summer
- Flower Color: White
- Hardiness Zones: 12
- Native Area: India, Sri Lanka
How to Grow Peppercorn Plant
Peppercorn plants grow in tropical jungles, and as such, grow best in hot, humid environments with filtered light. The more elements you can include from their native habitat, the more likely it is you will be able to get your peppercorn plant to fruit. As a slow-growing plant, the peppercorn takes about four years to reach blooming and fruiting size. Plants reach their peak at seven years, and can remain productive in fruiting for up to twenty years.
When growing peppercorn plant as an indoor houseplant, give it the brightest light you can. The vines need the sun's energy to produce flowers and fruit. In a greenhouse or outdoors, partial sunlight is adequate for healthy growth.
Peppercorn plants need a rich, humus-y soil that retains moisture. However, the soil must have good drainage, and heavy clay soils can cause root rot. Use a light potting mix amended with compost or leaf mold.
Peppercorn vines do not like to dry out. Water the plants when the surface of the soil feels dry.
Temperature and Humidity
Peppercorn plants are classified as zone 12 plants, which means that they need very warm temperatures to maintain health. Plants will stop growing when temperatures drop below 50 degrees F, and they may attract pests like weevils or flea beetles if stressed by the cold. Peppercorn plants like a humid environment, and appreciate regular misting. If you can provide enough light in a humid bathroom or kitchen, these are good places to grow the peppercorn vine.
Peppercorn plants are light feeders. In the spring, when growth begins to increase, you can give them a fertilizer for blooming plants with a 7-9-5 balance of nutrients. Fertilize every two weeks throughout the summer, and discontinue feeding in the fall and winter months.
Potting and Repotting
Peppercorn vines are slow-growing perennial vines, and seldom need repotting. When plants begin to show signs of being root bound, gently tease the rootball from the container and repot using a loamy bagged potting soil mix.
You can form peppercorn plant clones of the parent plant easily by burying part of a low-lying stem under the soil. In one growing season, the buried part of the stem will produce roots, and you can then sever this new plant from the parent plant. In a more advanced technique called air-layering, usually reserved for woody stems, you can slice away the surface of the stem and pack it with moist sphagnum moss. Enclose the moss with plastic food wrap, and secure ends with electrical tape. Allow three months for sufficient roots to develop before removing this new plant from the parent.
Varieties of Peppercorn Plant
Within the species, there is one variegated cultivar of peppercorn plant worth growing for the unusual and exotic plant hobbyist. Piper nigrum albo variegatum features large creamy white splashes on its heart-shaped leaves, and produces the same peppercorn fruits as the standard variety. Like many variegated plants, peppercorn albo vines are less vigorous than the standard cultivar.
Pruning peppercorn vines isn't necessary for plant health. You may prune plants to remove any dead or dying foliage, or to keep plants in bounds when growing in a small space.
You can use the fruits of the peppercorn in three ways as they progress through the ripening stages. You may take the earliest green fruits and pickle them, which renders them soft and not very spicy. If you harvest the peppercorns just as they are beginning to turn red, and allow them to dry for a few days, the result is the common black peppercorn. White pepper comes from the most mature stage of the ripening fruits. When the berries are completely red, you may pick them and remove the outer red husk, leaving you with a white kernel which you can grind like regular black peppercorns.
Being Grown in Containers
As a young plant, the peppercorn vine makes a handsome specimen for hanging baskets. You can usually maintain them for at least two seasons this way, but if you intend to cultivate fruit-producing plants, you will need to move the vines to a larger container in a greenhouse or conservatory environment. When you transition your plants to an upright growing position, you must provide a trellis for the vines to cling to. A healthy vine in a tropical greenhouse setting can reach between eight to 10 feet in height.
Growing From Seeds
It takes patience to grow peppercorn plants from seed, but this method is valuable if you want to start many plants to sell or to give to friends. Take a mature (red) peppercorn berry from your vine. Soak the berry overnight to hydrate it, and plant just beneath the soil surface. Keep in a warm room between 75 to 85 degrees F; use a heated germination mat for best results. Germination will occur in about 30 days.
Peppercorn Plant vs. Piper Lolot
Not all plants in the Piper genus produce peppercorns. Another Piper vine, the Piper sarmentosum, is valued not for its fruits, but for its edible leaves. Immature Piper sarmentosum plants look the same as peppercorn plants, with heart-shaped green foliage, so buy labeled plants from a reputable supplier to ensure you get the correct species.