Just as the name implies, the Peruvian pepper is a species native to the Andes Mountains of Peru. It is an evergreen tree that can reach a maximum height of about 15 m. It has the scientific name Schinus molle, with the term molle being inspired by mulli, which means tree in the native Quechua language. The tree is not related to the real pepper plant (Piper nigrum) but its pink fruits are commonly sold as pink peppers. It also hosts the pepper-tree moth, Bombycomorpha bifascia.
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The Peruvian pepper tree has a fast growth rate and quickly reaches the height of 15 m, with a trunk width between 16 and 33 cm. This size makes it the larger Schinus species and also the one with the longest life cycle. It has pinnate compound leaves with a length of 8 to 25 cm and a width between 4 and 9 cm, consisting of a large number of alternate leaflets, between 19 and 41. The branches on the upper part of the tree tend to hang towards the ground. It is a dioecious species, which means that a tree can have either male or female flowers. These are found on panicles at the end of the hanging branches and are small and white.
The tiny flowers are clustered on panicles that hang towards the ground. Individually, they are located on very small stalks, no longer than 1 or 2 mm, and consist of five small sepals and petals, not larger than 1-2 mm each. Since the tree is dioecious, a cluster can only consist of male flowers or female ones. The difference is in the number and shape of stamens, while the male flowers have about 10 stamens, the female ones have smaller ones, as well as a style and stigma on top of an ovary.
The fruits of Peruvian pepper are actually drupes, even if they are usually named berries. They are green when young but later turn bright pink or red as they ripe. The fruits can reach a diameter of 5 to 7 mm and have a spherical shape, with large woody seeds. The fruits can stay on the tree for the entire year and are found in very large and dense groups of hundreds of individual berries.
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The Peruvian pepper tree has a twisted grey bark with a rough surface and small drops of sap can be found on its surface. The interesting aroma of the fruits is also found in the bark and leaves, if they are crushed.
The ancient Incas prepared a special drink using the sweet pulp from the ripe fruits of Peruvian pepper. It was removed by very carefully rubbing them, in order to avoid using the parts closer to the seed, which can be very bitter. The flesh would them be strained and fermented for several days. The Incas also prepared a gruel after mixing the pulp with maize and a syrup by boiling it.
Chicha, an alcoholic beverage prepared from the fermented fruits, was a major use of the Peruvian pepper. This was discovered in archeological remains, which proved this drink was produced on a large scale in the Central Andes between 550 and 1000 AD.
Because of the very similar look, the Peruvian pepper is usually considered a replacement for Piper nigrum and marketed as such. It is also often mixed with the normal pepper berries. It has to be used with caution, since the fruits and the leaves are toxic to pigs, chicken and maybe calves as well. They might also be poisonous to young children, who might suffer from indigestion and vomiting after consuming them. Fruit extracts are a flavour ingredient in local drinks and beverages.
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The Peruvian pepper was known for its action against bacteria and other pathogens and widely used for this purpose in traditional South American medicine, to treat infections and disinfect wounds. It was also used to treat rheumatism, tooth pain and various menstrual problems. The diuretic and antidepressant properties have recently become the focus of modern research, with its ability to reduce depression being validated in tests on mice. Because it can kill insects, the Peruvian pepper plant is considered a potential natural alternative to pest control chemicals.
The antiseptic effect of the Peruvian pepper tree is provided by extracts of the leaves and bark, as well as the essential oil. In vitro tests have revealed a very strong antimicrobial action of the essential oil and leaves against numerous types of bacteria.
Peruvian pepper is still a popular remedy in the arsenal of herbalists of North and South America. It is not easily administered due to a very strong smell but provides a wide range of benefits. The plant is used especially against upper respiratory infections such as cold or flu, as well as Candida and infections of a fungal nature. It is also a treatment for erratic heart rate and hypertension, as well as excessive menstrual bleeding, pain or other menstrual issues.
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Essential oil extracted from Peruvian pepper has a long history of use in traditional medicine and modern homeopathy. It has also been tested by modern scientists, who have confirmed many of its properties, especially the effectiveness against viruses, bacteria and fungi. Traditional practitioners also believe it to be a treatment against cancer, as well as an option to reduce high blood pressure. It is also used against depression, gout, rheumatism, toothache and other diseases by local tribesmen in Central and South America.
The antiseptic properties of Schinus molle are quite well attested. It can kill viruses, when used against common cold or flu. It is also effective against the yeast varieties that lead to Candida. Another benefit is the reduction of blood pressure but it must be used with care and never combined with other conventional or alternative treatments. It appears to kill cancer cells located in the liver area and it can also act as an effective painkiller.
Homeopathy experts use Schinus molle as a remedy for depression but also for its diuretic effects and as a toothache relief. Other well-known as long attested benefits are in the treatment of irregular menstruation, as well as a digestive aid. It is also claimed that it has natural laxative effects, as a cure for constipation. The very strong smell, similar to the one of regular pepper, appears to repulse bugs, which can help prevent numerous serious tropical diseases that are transmitted by insect bites.
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Mesoamerican shamans still use bunches of fresh leaves in their practices and ceremonies, as both a form of offering and for cleansing purposes.
An old pre-Columbian industrial use in the Andes Mountains is in the textile trade. The leaves are still use in these areas as a natural type of dye. The old embalming and mummification practices of the Incas made use of essential oil extracted from leaves in the early stages of the process.
The Peruvian pepper tree likes locations with full sun exposure and soils with good drainage. Peruvian pepper tolerates drought and high temperatures and can be planted in sandy soils. In the right conditions, Peruvian pepper tree grows extremely fast but the rate can slow down in locations that are not proper. Since it is dioecious, both male and female trees must be cultivated in order to produce seeds. The smell and taste of pepper are also present in the oily leaves, if crushed.
Several viable propagation methods exist and seeds, cuttings or suckers can be used for this purpose. The extremely hard coating of seeds makes germination difficult, with the ones semi-digested by animals and birds having a much better rate. Germination happens in spring and the new shoots initially grow slowly. Another option is to simply pick new plants that germinate from seed on their own under a mature tree. Hundreds of them can usually be found in the leaf remains.
If you want to use the seed for propagation, plant it in the middle of spring in a greenhouse. As soon as the seedlings can be handled, prick them and relocate them in single pots. After one winter inside the greenhouse, they can be moved outside at the start of summer. Cuttings of half-ripe wood of about 8 cm must be placed in a frame at the end of summer or start of autumn, with a reasonably high rate of success.