Black pepper (peppercorn) may be one of the most common spices you can buy, but it is also possible to grow black pepper at home. Keep reading to learn how to cultivate this plant which I am growing at my farm in Pedasi. People who live in USDA zones 10 and 11 can grow black pepper.
There are also many medicinal benefits of peppercorn. Ayurveda uses it as a bioavailability enhancer because it improves absorption of beneficial compounds because it has piperine, which also gives it its spicy flavor. For this reason it is added to the traditional Indian spice mix, as it helps improve the nutrient absorption of the rest of the spices and herbs. Most of turmeric supplements include black pepper.
Peppercorn is the fruit of the Piper nigrum vine is a perennial, flowering vine which is part of the Piperaceae family. Peppercorns can be consumed in each of their growing stages. We are used to seeing black pepper, however when pepper is harvested it is red, pink or green in color. When you grow black pepper it will be green when it is unripe, turning into a pink or red color when ripe. The preservation and processing of peppercorn will turn it black, white or dark green depending on the technique.
This tropical plant originates in India, in the Malabar coastal region which is the state of Kerala. It is possible to grow black pepper in tropical wet and dry zones such as China, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Brazil and Central America.
Peppercorn is a Vine
Most people have absolutely no idea where black pepper comes from. Peppercorn is actually a vine! It can grow up to 30 to 35 feet in height if supported by a tree, but most cultivators keep it between 5 to 10 feet for easy access and maintenance. Don’t worry if your vine grows too high since it is also food for birds and insects. If you grow black pepper you can expect many years of harvest since this vine lives more than 30 years.
Peppercorn stem is woody and bushy and the leaves are oval in shape. It is common to see them planted with other fruit trees, coconut, mango, or areca nut. This vine coexists great with other trees and can attract bees and birds. The peppercorn plant is very pretty so it can add a tropical vibe to your garden. Peppercorn flowers are white and they grow in clusters, while the fruits form in drupes.
Grow Black Pepper from Cuttings
You can grow black pepper using cuttings from mature branches of established plants. It is better to do this during the rainy season since there is a higher rate of aerial root formation which will help with the survival rate. Cut a portion of a branch that has one or two visible leaves or visible nodes.
Transfer cuttings to grow black pepper into a pot with nutrient rich soil that can drain well. Wait until the roots grow and the cutting has a minimum of five to six leaves before transferring it to its home by some fruit tree or trellis.
Grow Black Pepper from Seeds
You can buy black pepper seeds online or at nurseries. Soak them in water overnight to soften the outer layer. Sow seeds about half an inch deep into nutrient rich potting soil that can drain well. There should be about 2 to 3 inches of space between seeds to grow black pepper.
Place your seed tray or pots in a warm and humid spot that has shade. Those that live in dry areas can cover it with a plastic sheet to increase humidity. Sprinkle regularly with water to maintain moisture levels. Be patient since seeds can take up to a month to germinate. Germinating temperature must be between 71 and 86 F (22 and 30 C). Colder temperatures will greatly reduce the chance of germination.
How to Take Care of a Black Pepper Plant
Soil with a pH level of 5.5 to 7 is ideal to grow black pepper. Add lime if the soil is too acidic and sulfur if it is alkaline. This vine can tolerate fertile clay since it can retain lots of moisture. However, it has no tolerance for waterlogged conditions because this causes the root to rot and die. Soil must be rich in organic matter. This plant needs more phosphorus than nitrogen and potassium. You can apply liquid fertilizer every two weeks.
Partial shade is the ideal for growing peppercorn. Which is perfect since this vine likes to climb up trees. Plant it next to an established fruit tree (at a distance of one and a half foot from its base) or use a sturdy trellis. New shoots like the sun, but the roots need shade. Too much sunlight will dry out this plant, so it will not produce a bountiful harvest. This plant needs about six to eight hours of indirect sunlight per day.
Mulch at the base of the plant to help increase the humidity and retain moisture. Do not let the soil dry out between watering spells. Those who live in colder climates can grow black pepper indoors as well, as long as it is possible to replicate tropical conditions. This plant cannot tolerate frost or dry weather.
How to Grow Black Pepper on a Trellis
You can grow black pepper around a tree or create a trellis. The use of a trellis (or a fence) will allow the plant to grow upright and produce a higher yield. Something as simple as a wooden stake is enough for this plant to grow upright. Dig a hole and plant the sturdy wooden stake in them. Place them between 30-40 inches apart parallel to each other.
Train the peppercorn to grow up the trellis. Use plant ties or soft strips of cloth to tie the vine to the stake or fence. Don’t tie them too tight since this can damage the plant.
Black Pepper Pests and Diseases
Just like cardamom, the most common problem when you grow black pepper is the mealybug. This pest likes black pepper plants because of the sugary taste found in the vine. Mealybug will weaken the plant by sucking the juices found in the stems and leaves causing wilted stems, curled and discolored leaves and low fruit production.
Control mealybug as soon as you notice the problem because the female can lay up to 500 eggs at once so it can get out of control quickly. You can make your own control using ingredients found at home. All you need is a spray bottle, 1 cup of rubbing alcohol, 2 teaspoons of organic liquid dish soap and a quart of water. Put these ingredients in the spray bottle and shake it so they mix. Spray the repellent on the plants each week.
Dish soap destroys the skin of the mealybug, thus killing the pest. While rubbing alcohol draws them out of hiding and melts the protective wax that covers the insect. Spray the whole plant, even on parts that don’t have mealybug since they can travel.
Other pests that can cause problems when you grow black pepper are scale insects, slugs, aphids and spider mites (if grown indoors). Weevils and flea beetles may affect peppercorn vines if they are grown in cooler climates.
How to Harvest Black Pepper
Those who live in tropical conditions (like me) can start to harvest pepper in three to five years. Peppercorns form in clusters which can be consumed since they start to be glossy, which means they are mature. If you pick them at this stage you can preserve them in vinegar or brine. This plant will produce flowers and fruit year long if you live in a hot area.
To get black pepper you need to wait until there is at least one single peppercorn that is ripe and red in color, while the rest is green. Do not wait until they all turn pink or red which means that they are mature. Separate peppercorns by hand and clean them from insects and spider webs.
Dry the peppercorns in the sun or put them in a food dryer for an easier and faster process of getting black peppercorns. The traditional process requires blanching before drying to get a darker black color and improve the flavor and scent. Place your peppercorns in a clean muslin cloth and tie it before dipping it in boiling water for five minutes. This will change the color of the peppercorns from green to a dark olive green or brown.
Drain the water and spread them out on the cloth or in a tray to dry them under the sun. Make sure they are spread out evenly so the drying process is quicker. Rake them every two to three hours for the first two or three days so they don’t stick. This accelerates the drying process and reduces the risk of mold.
Sun and humidity influences how long the drying period takes. Stop drying them when they appear to be hardy and are shining black. Use a stone to crush some peppercorns. They are ready if they break and crumble. Leave them longer if they are still soft and sticky.
After you grow black pepper it is possible to store it in an airtight container for two to three years. Do not grind the peppercorns to store. It is best to grind them right before their use. Make sure that your hands and equipment are clean before touching the peppercorns.
To grow white peppercorns all you need to do is allow the peppercorns to turn red and ripen. It is also possible to consume pink peppercorns. Peel off the skin of each fruit which is actually edible and has a unique taste of its own. The seed inside is white and it will stay like this after it is sun-dried.