During the Middle Ages, cultivating a peppercorn plant was more valuable than gold. These rare plants were coveted for their value as a condiment (disguising a spoiled meat taste) and medicinal purposes. The exotic appeal of the plant still holds today. Peppercorn is a slow-growing, woody perennial flowering vine that 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 20 years. It should only be grown outside in tropical zones (or in temperature controlled greenhouses). If temperatures drop below 65 F, they stop growing. Frost kills the plant.
Peppercorn can grow up to 13 feet long on supporting trees, poles, or trellises. It is a spreading vine, rooting readily where trailing stems touch the ground. Its flower stalks with little tiny flowers grow up to 6 inches tall, looking like pendulous spikes. The flowers develop their fruits as drupes, appearing in immature green bunches, much like grapes.
|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||6.0 to 7.0 (slightly acidic to neutral)|
|Hardiness Zones||12 (USDA)|
|Native Area||India, Sri Lanka|
Peppercorn Plant Care
Peppercorn plants naturally grow in tropical jungles, best suited in hot, humid environments with filtered light. The closer you can mimic its native habitat, the more likely your peppercorn plant will fruit. These tropical plants may attract pests like weevils or flea beetles if stressed by the cold.
When growing peppercorn plant as an indoor houseplant, give it the brightest light possible. The vines need the sun's energy to produce flowers and fruit. However, in a greenhouse or outdoors, partial sunlight is adequate for healthy growth.
Peppercorn plants need humus-rich 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, so 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 hot temperatures to maintain health. Plants will stop growing when temperatures drop below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Peppercorn plants like a humid environment and appreciate regular misting. If you can provide bright light in a humid bathroom or kitchen, these are some good indoor 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.
Peppercorn Plant Varieties
There is only 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. However, 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 keep plants in bounds when growing in a small space.
Propagating Peppercorn Plants
You can form peppercorn plant clones of the parent plant easily by burying part of a low-lying stem under the soil—a technique known as layering. 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.
How to Grow Peppercorn Plants From Seed
It takes patience to grow peppercorn plants from seed, but this method is valuable if you want to start plants to sell or give to friends. Take a mature (red) peppercorn berry from your vine. Soak the berry overnight to hydrate it, and plant it just beneath the soil surface. Keep in a warm room between 75 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit; use a heated germination mat for best results. Germination will occur in about 30 days.
Potting and Repotting Peppercorn Plants
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 mix. 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.
However, 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 grow 8 to 13 feet long.
Spices like pepper are riding the wave of the healthy eating trend as scientists learn more about the disease-fighting properties of these tiny wonder plants. A recent study in"Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition" explores the "antioxidant, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, gastro-protective, and antidepressant activities of black pepper." You can use the fruits of the peppercorn in three ways as they progress through the ripening stages.
- Take the earliest green fruits and pickle them, which renders them soft and not very spicy.
- If you harvest the peppercorns when they begin to turn red, 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, pick them and remove the outer red husk, leaving you with a white kernel, which you can grind like regular black peppercorns.
Peppercorn Plant vs. Piper Lolot
Not all plants in the Piper genus produce peppercorns. Another Piper vine, the Piper sarmentosum, is valued for its edible leaves. Immature Piper sarmentosum plants look the same as peppercorn plants, with heart-shaped green foliage.