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What Is Peppergrass: Peppergrass Information And Care In Gardens

Peppergrass (Lepidium virginicum) is a very common plant that grows all over the place. It was grown and eaten both in the Incan and Ancient Roman Empires, and today it can be found virtually everywhere in the United States. It spreads easily and is often treated as a weed, but many gardeners and foragers appreciate it for its sharp, peppery flavor. Keep reading to learn more peppergrass information, like peppergrass uses and how to grow peppergrass.

What is Peppergrass?

Peppergrass is an annual, or winter annual, that will grow in most climates. It can thrive in many types of soil, in full sun to partial shade. It is often found in disturbed ground and in urban areas, like vacant lots and roadsides.

The plant can grow to three feet (1 m.) in height and become bushy when it has no other competition. It starts out as a low-growing rosette that bolts upward rapidly to form long, thin leaves, small white flowers, and seed pods.

Growing peppergrass plants is very easy, as they reseed themselves and tend to spread to places they’re not wanted. In fact, peppergrass management is usually more difficult and more important than peppergrass care. That said, it does have a useful place in the garden… with careful maintenance.

How to Grow Peppergrass in Gardens

Also called poor man’s pepper, peppergrass is part of the mustard family and has a distinct and pleasant spicy flavor. All parts of the plant are edible, and peppergrass uses have a wide range. The leaves can be eaten raw or used in cooking the way arugula or other mustard greens would be. The seeds can be ground up and used in the same way pepper is used. Even the roots can be pulverized and mixed with salt and vinegar for a very good horseradish alternative.

When growing peppergrass plants, remove most of the flowers before the seed pods have a chance to drop. This will ensure that some new plants grow in the spring, but they won’t overrun your garden.

Black Nightshade Berries

Black Nightshade may grow as a summer annual or short-lived perennial broadleaf plant that dies away after a few seasons. It develops a bushy, sometimes vining structure and can reach heights of one meter, but specimens as small as 8 centimeters can ripen viable fruit. The dark green leaves are soft and thin, the shape of an arrowhead and may be smooth or hairy depending upon variety. In the summer small purple flowers resembling those of a tomato bloom in small clusters, and later give way to round berries 1 centimeter in diameter. They ripen from a green to deep inky blue and contain a seedy interior with juicy pale green pulp. The flavor is like a cross between a tomato, a tomatillo and a blueberry, both savory and sweet.

Seasons/Availability

Black Nightshade berries are available in the late summer and fall.

Current Facts

Black Nightshade is an herbaceous plant that is considered a poisonous weed by some and yet an important food source in other parts of the world. There are dozens of subspecies of Black Nightshade that are collectively grouped under the botanical name Solanum nigrum, each varying only slightly from each other. The identity crisis that surrounds Black Nightshade is perhaps because of its common misidentification as Atropa belladonna, or Deadly nightshade, a truly toxic plant in the same family. Black Nightshade is entirely edible, nutritious and delicious and with proper identification, a foragers goldmine, providing both edible berries and greens.

Nutritional Value

Black Nightshade berries contain calcium, phosphorus and vitamin A.

Applications

Black Nightshade berries maybe cooked or simply eaten raw out of hand as a wild food snack. Their musky, slightly sweet, yet tomato-like flavor lend them to both sweet and savory applications, but they are most often prepared as a preserve, jam or pie filling. Some people find that their skins and seeds impart an unpleasant texture and a “hot” flavor in sweet preparations, and are therefore removed with a sieve or cheesecloth. The leaves are also edible and may be prepared as a vegetable green on their own or added to soup and stews.

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Ethnic/Cultural Info

The berries and the leaves of the Black Nightshade plant were a crucial food source and an important natural medicine for early Native American tribes including the Cherokee, Iroquois and Costanoan Indians. Medicinally, an infusion of the leaves was taken for depression and as a psychological aid for extreme trauma such as death in the family. It was also used to treat scarlet fever, dermatological disorders and toothaches.

Geography/History

Most western cultures have long regarded Black Nightshade as inedible due the myth of its toxicity, even though it has been proven to be perfectly safe for consumption. It is estimated that in other parts of the globe over two billion people regularly eat Black Nightshade as a normal part of their diet. In tropical and subtropical climates across Africa and Asia, the leaves are as ubiquitous as spinach and the berries as common as blueberries. Black Nightshade is a hardy plant that thrives in most soil types and prefers partial shade.

Peruvian Pink Peppercorns: A Surprising Backyard Forage

Maybe you’ve seen this ornamental evergreen tree in your neighborhood, with its sweeping willow-like branches draped in reddish-pink berries. But did you know these berries, when ripened in fall and winter, can be foraged and dried as pink peppercorns? (Yes, the same gourmet pink peppercorns you buy at the store.) Learn how to identify the pink peppercorn tree and harvest its berries in the wild.

If you think about it, wild food is everywhere around us. Our backyards have dandelions growing so rampant, we constantly try to eradicate them.

Public fruit trees beg to be gleaned, miner’s lettuce is a weed with a gourmet reputation, easy hikes will bring you upon scores of stinging nettles and fennel.

The East Coast has ramps springing up every year in shady woodlands. Northern California has chanterelles and blackberries in abundance.

And in Southern California, there’s Peruvian pepper, also known as the pink peppercorn tree. These are the same pink peppercorns you see in stores as a gourmet spice, packaged in small, expensive jars and called for in fancy cookbooks.

But in Southern California and other parts of the country, bucketfuls of these vibrant berries litter the ground in suburban neighborhoods all through fall and winter, free for the taking. More often than not, they’re dismissed as a nuisance by the gardener who has to rake them all up.

It almost seems like a food crime to let heaps of peppercorns lay forgotten when just a few miles away, they command upwards of $10 an ounce at specialty spice shops.

Because while they look like (and are often grown as) landscape ornamentals in residential backyards and municipal sidewalks, the pink peppercorns from Peruvian pepper trees are 100 percent edible!

Peruvian pepper tree vs. Brazilian pepper tree

The classic pink peppercorn comes from the Peruvian pepper tree (Schinus molle), which is also called the California pepper tree (although it’s particularly invasive in Florida and Hawaii).

Peruvian pepper is not to be confused with its cousin, the Brazilian pepper tree (Schinus terebinthifolius), which has similar berries but rounder and wider leaves resembling holly. (And to make things more confusing, the pink peppercorns from Brazilian pepper trees are sometimes called Madagascar pepper—but they are one and the same.)

Though they are different species, the dried reddish-pink berries of both trees are used in commercial peppercorn blends, and are labeled interchangeably as “pink peppercorns” or “red peppercorns.”

The pink peppercorn tree featured here belongs to a friend and reaches over 30 feet in height—towering above his two-story home in Long Beach, California. Its drooping growth habit reminds me a lot of weeping willow, with evergreen branches that dangle with clusters of pink berries.

The berries are known as drupes, or fruits that bear a single seed. The hard, woody seed (wrapped inside a papery pink husk) is the “peppercorn,” though Peruvian pepper is not an actual pepper at all.

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Pink peppercorn has no relation to the green, black, or white peppercorn berries (Piper nigrum, or true pepper) grown throughout Asia and used as a spice. It’s known as a “false pepper” and is actually a member of the cashew family.

(This connection to cashews is what gives pink peppercorns an unfair reputation as being poisonous—more on that below.)

Where is Peruvian pink pepper found?

Peruvian pepper is an evergreen tree with a weeping canopy of branches, native to Northern Peru in the high desert of the Andes.

It’s become naturalized around the world, where it’s cultivated for spice production, and in some parts it’s even considered a serious weed—taking over savanna and grasslands in South Africa, and forests and coastal areas in Australia.

Peruvian pepper likes hot climates and can be found in the Southwest (Arizona and California), Central California, Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico.

In Southern California, Peruvian pepper trees grow wild all over the Palos Verdes Peninsula, as well as the Greater Los Angeles inland valleys and foothills. (I’ve foraged berries from Piru Creek in Northern Los Angeles County.) You can even find rows of trees lining the streets around Disneyland in Anaheim.

The leaves and flowers of Peruvian pepper trees have a subtle peppery aroma. In spring and summer, tiny, delicate flower buds dot the branches. In fall and winter, the flowers give way to reddish-pink berries that are ready for harvest.

With Peruvian pepper trees ripening in fall and winter, the end (or beginning) of the year is the perfect time to start foraging!

How to harvest pink peppercorns

Harvesting pink peppercorns is as simple as collecting a few clusters of berries from a Peruvian pepper tree.

Step 1: Look for branches with ripe pepper tree berries.

Cut off a segment of branch with a good amount of reddish-pink berries on it. They’re easy to find as they’re usually the clusters draping off the ends of the tree.

Step 2: Dry the peppercorn berries.

Gently pull the fresh berries off the branches with your fingers. Sometimes I’m able to do this quickly by running my fingers firmly down a branch to strip off the berries (the way you might take thyme or rosemary leaves off a stem).

Don’t worry if you get some stems in the mix—though it won’t give you a “clean” harvest, there’s no harm in having a few bits and pieces of stems in with your spice.

Spread the berries out on a plate or cookie sheet, and leave them out on the counter to dry at room temperature.

Within a few days, the berries will fully dry and harden into peppercorns.

A Peruvian pepper berry consists of a shell surrounding a single seed. During the drying process, the shell may crack and separate to reveal a brownish pink seed inside.

This separation is similar to how white peppercorns are made—the outer shells are removed from the berries of black pepper plants and the seeds themselves become white peppercorns.

If your berries are dried in a sunny spot, the shell may become bleached as it shrinks around the seed to create the hard, wrinkled outer layer so familiar as peppercorns.

Sometimes the shell stays intact and you’ll have smooth peppercorns, but you can eat any of these pink peppercorns (shelled or not).

What can you do with pink peppercorns?

Because of their delicate, paper-thin skins (which tend to get stuck in a traditional pepper grinder), I like to grind my pink peppercorns with a mortar and pestle, or crush them with the flat side of a heavy knife to release their oils.

I don’t blend them with black and green pepper (the way you typically see pink peppercorns sold in the store), as I feel true pepper overwhelms them.

Pink peppercorns taste differently than black peppercorns. They have a fruity and slightly spicy profile (like mild chile peppers) that complements seafood, salads, curries, cheese, chocolate, or popcorn.

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Since Peruvian pink peppercorns are relatively mild, they can be used whole in recipes without being too overpowering. They’re still spicy and peppery, but have a very fragrant, sweet-tart and rosy tone.

The flavor would work well in light sauces, fruity vinaigrettes, or desserts. I think I’ll even try them in place of black peppercorns in my pickling spices, especially when I want a bit more sweetness.

As with any spice, pink peppercorns should be stored away from direct sunlight and heat to preserve flavor. It will keep for at least six months, after which it may start to decline in quality (which simply means you’ll have to use more of it to get the same potency as freshly dried pink peppercorns).

Are pink peppercorns toxic?

Here’s an interesting chapter in the pink peppercorn tree’s family history that most people don’t know…

The Peruvian pepper tree belongs to Anacardiaceae, otherwise known as the cashew family, a group that also includes poison sumac, poison oak, and poison ivy. Pink pepper’s connection to this notorious family means it earned a bad rap in the 1980s for being a potentially toxic plant.

That’s because the Brazilian pink pepper was once banned from importation after the Food and Drug Administration received reports of consumers having adverse reactions to the berries.

It enjoyed a brief moment in the culinary spotlight when it was introduced in 1980, hailed as an emblem of French nouvelle cuisine.

But researchers soon began documenting cases of human toxicity including “violent headaches, swollen eyelids, shortness of breath, chest pains, sore throat, hoarseness, upset stomach, diarrhea, and hemorrhoids,” symptoms that are consistent of those with poison ivy reactions, according to this 1982 article by The New York Times.

The French government protested the FDA ban, insisting that pink peppercorns grown and imported from the island of Réunion, near Madagascar, were non-toxic due to the trees growing on different soil under different conditions.

With uncertainty on whether or not they’d poison their customers, chefs stopped cooking with pink peppercorns, markets stopped selling them, and the once-trendy spice fell out of public favor by 1983.

The French eventually submitted research that proved their Brazilian pink peppercorns were non-toxic, and the FDA dropped its ban.

Rainbow peppercorn blends gradually made their way into shops and kitchens again, with few answers to explain the spate of severe reactions that were previously documented.

Today, it’s believed that allergic reactions are limited to people who are allergic to tree nuts (since pink pepper trees come from the cashew family) or those who are sensitive to the sap of poison ivy.

What’s not known is how much of the spice one has to ingest in order to experience any ill effects. Most people don’t chew on handfuls of pink peppercorns at a time, so with the tiny amounts used in cooking, it’s unlikely to cause reactions in those without serious allergies to related plants.

In addition, there have been no documented cases of people experiencing reactions to Peruvian pink pepper. It’s widely enjoyed these days in all types of cuisine, whether the peppercorns are purchased from a store or foraged from a tree.

Do you have a pink pepper tree growing in your yard? Or do you live in an area where pink pepper trees grow in abundance? Please share where you’ve seen them!

This post updated from an article that originally appeared on November 10, 2011.

Linda Ly

I’m a plant lover, passionate road-tripper, and cookbook author whose expert advice and bestselling books have been featured in TIME, Outside, HGTV, and Food & Wine. The No-Waste Vegetable Cookbook is my latest book. Garden Betty is where I write about modern homesteading, farm-to-table cooking, and outdoor adventuring — all that encompass a life well-lived outdoors. After all, the secret to a good life is. Read more »