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Black pepper is the most commonly used spice in the world and, paired with salt, is found on most tables in the U.S. The plant that it comes from, common pepper (Piper nigrum), has been cultivated in India for more than 2,000 years for culinary uses. Today, most pepper is imported from India, Sumatra, Japan, Borneo, and the Philippines. Pepper enthusiasts believe that Malabar produces the best pepper.
Pepper isn’t grown commercially in the U.S. This perennial vine is hardy only in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 11b through 12, and thrives in moist, humid conditions. Few U.S. locales provide the necessary growing requirements.
However, you can grow peppercorns at home with a little extra patience. In addition to its culinary value, pepper makes a lovely houseplant or landscaping plant with its glossy, evergreen leaves and large flowers. Learn how to plant and grow your own peppercorns.
Peppercorn seeds are widely available through online nurseries. Prior to planting the seeds, soak them overnight to soften the seed coats. Plant the seeds ¼ inch deep in a rich, well-draining potting mix. Space the seeds three inches apart. Spray the seed tray frequently with a mister to keep the starting mix moist and cover the seed tray with plastic wrap. Store it in a warm location, such as the top of the refrigerator or on top of a radiator.
Peppercorn seeds can take up to thirty days to germinate at temperatures between seventy-five and eighty-five degrees. At lower temperatures, they germinate slowly or not at all.
Once the seeds germinate, seedlings can be replanted when they stand four to six inches tall. If you live in a very warm climate, plant them directly outdoors in a protected location with partial shade. The plants need rich, moist, well-draining soil and warm, humid conditions. Peppers can’t tolerate temperatures below sixty degrees. Bring plants indoors or wrap them in a blanket if colder weather threatens.
In other parts of the country, plant peppercorns in large pots. Grow them outdoors during the summer and move them indoors during the winter, or grow them year-round in a conservatory or greenhouse. Houseplants need bright light and consistent moisture. Spray the foliage regularly with a bottle of water to increase humidity. Don’t allow room temperatures to fall below sixty degrees.
Pepper plants have long, vigorous vines and can reach twelve to fifteen feet high. The plants need a strong trellis or structure to scramble over. Indoors, you can install a trellis in a large pot or even grow them as a hanging plant instead.
Peppers need moderately fertile soil to perform well. Fertilize them in the spring before new vigorous growth emerges with a balanced organic fertilizer like Protogrow™ and augmented with a mineral solution like SeaMazing. Fertilize outdoor vines according to package directions. Indoors, Protogrow™ and SeaMazing are viable fertilizer options as well. Because nutrients leach more quickly out of potted soil than regular garden soil, fertilize houseplants every three to four weeks during the growing season. Water houseplants more frequently, as well.
Growth will slow somewhat during the winter as temperatures cool. Continue to water the plants occasionally to keep the soil slightly moist.
Pests and Problems
For most gardeners, the biggest challenge is simply providing enough heat and humidity for these tender plants. Peppers have few insect pests. Outdoors, flea beetles or pepper weevils might bother young plants. The damage is rarely severe, although an application of rotenone can dispatch the pests. Indoors, you might notice aphids on the undersides of the leaves. Try spraying the leaves with a steady stream of water or applying an insecticidal soap or oil.
Root rots can afflict pepper plants, but they are easily prevented by providing well-draining soil. Amend heavy soils with compost or grow peppers in raised beds.
Peppers need a long, long growing season to produce peppercorns. Fortunately, the flowers are attractive in their own right and the foliage is glossy and evergreen. The cream, white, or yellow flowers appear from spring through summer, followed by the slow fruit production.
Peppercorns form in clusters of fruit that slowly ripen from green to red. They are usually harvested just as they reach the red stage. Once harvested, the red peppercorns are separated and dried, either in the sun or in a food dryer for about three days. The process is complete when the peppercorns are blackened and fully dry. At this point, they can be ground as black pepper.
White peppercorn is made by removing the red hull. The remaining peppercorns are then dried and ground into a mild-tasting form of pepper. Finally, green pepper is made by harvesting the peppercorns while they are still green and drying them.
A pepper plant can take three to four years to produce fruit from the time you plant the seed. Houseplants may never produce fruit.
Ground pepper can be added to almost any cooked dish, as well as certain fresh recipes. It has a pungent, sharp taste that freshens most recipes. Additionally, though, black pepper can improve digestion and reduce gas.
Ground pepper only stays fresh for about three months, but peppercorns will last indefinitely. To make the most of your harvest, store peppercorns in an airtight container in a cool, dark location. Grind them immediately before use for best flavor.
Add pepper to soups, meat dishes, or salad dressings. Combine olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and ground black pepper for a simple but elegant dipping sauce for bread.