It comes as no surprise that black pepper, or Piper nigrum, is the most popular spice in the world. After all, you’d be hard-pressed to find a restaurant or home in the United States without a pair of salt and pepper shakers on every table.
Black pepper is a versatile and intriguing spice that can be traced back to a region in South India. This woody vine produces small green fruits and spiky white flowers. The unripe peppercorns are dried and sometimes cooked until they turn black and wrinkly. The journey from the vine to the pepper grinder is a long one.
Despite that, black pepper is surprisingly easy to grow. This crawling perennial vine produces vibrant green leaves and serpentine clusters, or drupes, of green peppercorns. It’s both ornamental and edible. As such, it is an excellent plant for a kitchen windowsill or small container. The long woody tendrils can also be grown in fields and greenhouses.
In this article, we aim to demystify this impressive spice by exploring every facet of the growing and harvesting processes. If you are lucky enough to live in USDA Hardiness Zone 10, 11, or 12, you might have a future as a black pepper grower. Just think of how well-stocked your pantry will be. No more flavorless dishes!
What is black pepper?
According to the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, black pepper makes up over 20% of the world’s spice trade. That’s a huge chunk, especially when you consider that there are several thousands of different spices. Still, this aromatic fruit has been tantalizing people’s taste buds for centuries.
Black pepper is a perennial vine from southern India. After a couple of years of sluggish growth, the vines bear clusters of small white flowers. These blooms slowly develop into drupes of green peppercorns.
While many people assume that peppercorns are black, their distinct color is a product of post-harvest processing. Unripened peppercorns are green. Meanwhile, ripe peppercorns have a vibrant red hue. The unripe fruits turn black after being dried or cooked. After several days in the sun, green peppercorns shrivel up and darken. After the peppercorns are dried, they are usually ground up and sprinkled on and into dishes.
Black pepper is a fast-spreading vine that can grow over 20 feet in length when it is supported. Most black pepper plants yield peppercorns for several years. However, growers must wait two to four years before they can harvest the fruits of their labors. Still, with a little bit of dedication and careful planning, you will be able to harvest your very own black peppercorns in just a few years. If you ask us, that’s all the incentive you need to get started.
These small, round fruits grow in abundance. A small amount of crushed black pepper provides dishes with undeniable flavor punches.
What are the different varieties available?
Black pepper varieties are typically named for their country of origin. There are Vietnamese, Ecuadorian, and even Madagascan black peppercorns. In the section below, explain why regional soils and environmental conditions have a tremendous impact on black pepper plants.
Tellicherry peppercorns are the biggest type of black peppercorns on the market. Yet, they make up a small percentage of all peppercorns. Tellicherry peppercorns grow on the tops of black pepper vines.
Their distinctly rich flavor makes them a more expensive and preferred commodity. They must boast a diameter larger than 4 ½ millimeters. Whereas, typical peppercorns have diameters that are less than 4 millimeters.
Pepper From Around the World
Black pepper is grown in many of the world’s countries. Peppercorns are popular cash crops in countries such as Malaysia, Ecuador, Malabar, and Sumatra. The sizes, flavors, and aromas of peppercorns vary from place to place. Chefs sometimes target peppercorns from specific geographic areas when trying to achieve a unique flavor pairing. The Nibble provides a guide to different black peppercorns varieties, including flavor notes and food pairing suggestions. Like coffee, peppercorns can be identified by their geographical indicators.
What is the best time to plant?
Since pepper plants grow year-round in tropical regions, there’s no right or wrong time to plant these spices. Make sure that the daytime temperatures are consistently 70 degrees or higher. Most gardeners prefer to plant their black pepper plants in late spring or early summer. Your planting and harvesting windows will vary depending on your geographical location.
Where can you plant black pepper?
You can plant black pepper plants in the ground, a greenhouse, or a container. Black pepper is a hardy perennial vine that takes up several feet of space for years on end. These plants need trellises or fences for support. They also require a bit of shade. As such, you need to find a space that you can occupy for an extended time frame.
As a native plant of South India, black pepper thrives in tropical climates. USDA Hardiness Zones 10 and 11 are suitable areas to grow black pepper. These zones are made up of many of the southernmost states in the US. In most other areas, black pepper can only be grown in a greenhouse.
Pepper plants thrive in temperatures that range between 75 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit. If the temperature drops down to just 60 degrees, your pepper plants will perish. Since many growers spend years awaiting their tasty blooms, consistently warm temperatures are imperative.
So, what if you don’t live in a tropical paradise? Pepper vines make excellent hanging and potted plants. They do not have very dense or deep root systems. As such, they do not need much room to grow below the surface of the soil. Potted pepper plants are not likely to produce fruit. However, they have the potential to brighten up any indoor space.
Black pepper plants prefer moist soil with adequate drainage. They also need a lot of nutrients. Be prepared to fertilize your pepper plants every few weeks during spring and summer. We prefer to apply a spoonful of water-soluble 10-10-10 fertilizer every two to three weeks. You can mix the fertilizer with water and apply it to the surface of the soil, or you can simply sprinkle it above the roots.
Black pepper plants require partial shade. When scouting our planting zone in your garden or greenhouse, take the time to observe the sunlight over an entire day. In a warm, tropical climate, 8 hours of direct sunlight may scorch a black pepper plant. Look for a zone with nearby trees or bushes. These elements will cast a partial shadow during key parts of the day. The delicate foliage and flowers will benefit from their escape from the sun.
Black pepper plants should be planted in soil with good drainage. If you are planting your black pepper in a pot, make sure it has plenty of seepage holes in the bottom. If you are planting it directly into the soil, make sure that the soil does not contain excess clay or moisture. These conditions could damage the roots and even kill the entire pepper plant. Water your black pepper plants two to three times per week.
According to the National Development Agency (NDA) of South Africa, pepper plants require roughly 2,000 millimeters of water per year. When years rainfall does not equate to 2,000 millimeters of water, man-made irrigation is a suitable fill-in. You should use drip sprinklers, as direct spray could damage the lower leaves of these delicate perennials.
How to plant black pepper in the garden?
Are you struggling to decide between cuttings and seeds? We’ve got all the dirt on these two very different propagation styles.
Black pepper seeds are inexpensive and readily available. Experts recommend soaking these elements in water before putting them in the ground. Till your future black pepper patch. Then, press each seed into a 1/4-inch deep hole. Cover the hole with soil. Pepper plants should be 2 to 5 inches apart.
If you want to get a headstart at the beginning of the season, consider starting your pepper plants in a greenhouse or bright windowsill. Water your seeds immediately after planting them.
If you are lucky enough to know someone with mature black pepper plants, consider planting the cuttings. Remove a runner from the parent plant. Make sure that the cutting has two to three leaves. Never cut into the primary vine.
Place the runner in the soil to help it establish roots of its own. You can also clone your mature black pepper plants by placing the runners under the soil. Once the runner develops its roots, it can be transplanted to a separate space in your garden. Runners are some of the easiest and most economical ways to propagate black pepper plants.
For more information, check out this how-to video on pepper plant cuttings.
You can increase your cuttings’ chances of survival by starting them in a greenhouse or raised planting area. Transfer them to a permanent location after allowing them to thrive in a protected location.
How to take care of the black pepper plant?
Water your black pepper plants every other day. Do not allow the soil around your black pepper plants to become oversaturated. Today’s Homeowner gives step-by-step instructions on how to perform a DIY soil drainage test. You must dig a large hole. Fill the hole with water. Record how long it takes for the soil to drain over an hour.
Check to make sure that the soil is draining at an ideal rate. Add amendments to slow or speed your soil drainage. Pepper plants have very shallow root networks. You do not need the water to penetrate deep below the surface of the earth.
Farming is 99% in science and 1% luck. As such, we always recommend that growers test their soil before adding any fertilizer or amendments. Consider reaching out to your local agricultural extension. Soil pH should be between 5.5 and 7. Essentially, these plants enjoy soil that is slightly acidic.
You can always increase the acidity of your soil by adding lime. Speak with someone at your local agricultural extension to determine exactly how much lime to add to a patch of soil. A little precision goes a long way when it comes to soil science. If your soil is too acidic, add the appropriate amount of sulfur to increase its alkalinity.
You’ll also want to feed a basic three-part fertilizer to your pepper plants. NPK 10:10:10 or 20:20:20 should provide your plants with an adequate amount of essential nutrients. You may also mix composted manure into the soil before propagation.
Black pepper plants climb up and away from weeds if you train them properly. We recommend installing wooden trellises along the perimeter of your plants. These structures provide an adequate vertical surface for pepper vines.
Many growers prefer to mulch their black pepper plants to fend off weeds and other pests. During cool periods, you may shield the soil with black plastic. Black plastic will deter weeds without insulating the soil.
You may also use straw, newspaper, and other compostable mulching materials to deter weeds and trap in moisture. Natural mulches break down throughout a single growing season. Replace the mulch when it begins to decompose or loses its effectiveness.
Pepper plants should be pruned regularly to improve the productivity of the fruit-bearing runners. Limit the number of runners on your vine. What’s more, take care to reduce the number of secondary runners.
Black pepper plants boast three different sections. First off, there is the main vine that climbs upward. Then, some runners taper off from the bottom of the vine and spread their way across the soil. Finally, there are small fruit-bearing branches or runners.
Learn to recognize each element of the plant. Knowing the anatomy of a pepper plant makes it easy to identify core issues and developmental stages. From managing pests to rooting cuttings, you need to know your way around this woody vine if you want to see it to maturity.
How to harvest and store black pepper?
It takes a whopping three to four years before black pepper plants produce edible harvests. When the vines reach fruiting age, they will produce small spiky white flowers. Over nearly eight months, these flowers will develop into clusters, or drupes, of peppercorns. The drupes resemble clusters of low-hanging berries.
Pay close attention to your black pepper plants in late fall. You will need to be on the lookout for the first signs of ripening. As soon as a few fruits start to turn red, it is time for you to remove the peppercorns from the vines.
Dip your peppercorns in boiling water to change them from green to black. Place your peppercorns on well-ventilated panels and leave them in the sun to dry. It may take over a week for the seed-like fruits to shrivel. Do not expose the peppercorns to rain or water.
The dried fruits should be stored in clean, dry containers at room temperature. It can be ground up and used to a wide range of foods. Peppercorns can be kept in a sealed container for a couple of years. Still Tasty offers tips on preserving and extending the life of processed peppercorns.
Keep in mind that all the drupes on a single pepper plant do not ripen at the same time. Carefully pluck the drupes with red accents while leaving the solid-green drupes on the vine. Harvest the ripe fruits over several weeks or even months.
What pests and diseases impact black pepper plants?
Black pepper happens to be a natural pest and disease-resistant plant. Check them out in the section below.
Pepper Lace Bug
Pepper lace bugs prey on young pepper fruits. According to Plant Village, pepper lace bugs suck the life right out of immature peppercorns. These insects are present in East Asian countries. Backyard growers may be able to control pepper lace bug populations by plucking the bugs off and eliminating them in soapy water. Large farms may need to rely on chemical or herbal pesticides.
Striped mealybugs are one of the insects that cause harm to black pepper plants. These caterpillar-like insects leave behind a sticky substance that eventually succumbs to foliage-destroying mold. Growers may manage striped mealybug infestations by releasing predatory insects, such as lacewings. Other management techniques include chemical pesticides.
Black Pepper Root Disease
Black Pepper Root Disease is a product of overly cold, moist soil. Avoid overwatering your black pepper plants. Allow the soil to dry out between waterings. Yellow, droopy leaves are an early indicator of a sick or failing root system. Wide-spread fungus and root and vine damage are also telltale signs. You may add neem to your soil to decrease the prevalence of root rot and other destructive pathogens.
While black pepper may not tank high on the Scoville Scale, it does add a much-appreciated punch to most dishes. With a bit of time and patience, you can harvest and process your very own black pepper. Homegrown black pepper costs a fraction of the price of the store-bought alternatives. We tend to think it tastes better too!