Pepper (Lat. piper), the pungent fruit of a climbing shrub, piper nigrum, a native of the forests of Malabar and Travancore, and cultivated in various parts of the East and in the West Indies. The genus piper, which gives its name to a small family of apetalous, exogenous plants, consists mostly of climbing shrubs with alternate petioled leaves, dioecious or perfect flowers in solitary pendulous spikes opposite the leaves, each supported by a bract; stamens two or more; ovary solitary, containing a single ovule, and ripening into a one-seeded fruit with a fleshy exterior; in the species yielding pepper the stem is 12 to 20 ft. long, jointed and branching in a forked manner, the broadly ovate leaves five- to seven-nerved, and the flower spikes 3 to 6 in. long with 20 to 30 berries; the fruit, which is at first green, in ripening turns red and then yellow. Pepper was known to the ancient Greeks and Romans, two kinds having been described in the 4th century B. C, and it at one time occupied a much more important place in the world's traffic than now, it having been, before the days of cotton, coffee, and sugar, a principal article in the traffic between Europe and India; tribute was levied in pepper, and it was often used as a medium of exchange; when Rome was besieged by Alaric, A. D. 408, he demanded as a ransom, besides gold and silver, 3,000 lbs. of pepper; in the middle ages the landlords exacted a given amount of pepper at stated times as rent.
Dealers in spices were formerly called pepperers, and in the 12th century they formed a fraternity which was afterward merged in the grocers' company. - The plant is subjected to a rude kind of cultivation, in rich wooded , valleys, where lofty trees maintain the requisite coolness and moisture; the vines planted in these localities propagate themselves by running along the soil and taking root; the natives tie up the ends of the vines to the nearest tree, the shoots above the tie hanging down; if no tree is at hand, poles are set for training the vines. The average product is 8 or 10 lbs. of berries to each plant, and this is maintained for 10 or 15 years, when it declines, and a new plantation must be made. In Malabar the vine flowers in May and June, and the harvest begins in the new year; as soon as a few berries upon a cluster turn red, the spike is picked, and the next day the berries are rubbed off by hand and dried on mats in the sun, or in baskets before a slight fire; if the berries are allowed to become thoroughly ripe upon the vine, there is much loss from dropping, and they are less pungent; when dried, the color is brownish black and the surface is much wrinkled. "White pepper is the same as the black, it being prepared by removing the outer coating of the fruit; the berries are allowed to ripen and are then put into water and rubbed with the hands to wash away the pulp; when so treated it is less pungent, but is preferred by many from its not being readily seen in the food; when this is scarce in England, ordinary pepper is bleached with chlorine and used as a substitute.
In commerce Malabar pepper bears the highest price, and that from Sumatra is the cheapest. Pepper acts as a stimulant to digestion; while it is regarded as useful in small quantities, large doses are capable of producing inflammation; when applied to the skin it causes reddening, and if the application continues long enough it will blister. Pepper in the ground state is frequently adulterated; besides grinding up the sweepings of warehouses with the pepper, various inert substances are added. Hassall found in ground pepper in London linseed-cake meal, wheat flour, pea flour, mustard husks, rape seed, etc.; and in white pepper bone dust is used; in this country old ship bread and Indian meal are often used in such adulterations. In 1819 Oersted discovered in pepper a crystallizing principle, which was at first supposed to be an alkaloid and the active constituent; but later Pelletier showed that it was neutral with some of the properties of a resin, and when perfectly pure without taste or odor; it has been used with some success as an anti-periodic. The pungent taste of pepper is due to an acrid concrete oil or resin, and its odor to a volatile oil.
An Asiatic species, P. trioi-cum, furnishes a pepper esteemed in its native country, and the small quantities sent to England rank equal to the best Malabar. - Long pepper, which was probably known as early as the common kind, is scarcely ever seen in this country; it consists of numerous very small fruits attached to a stem, and is about an inch and a half long and a quarter of an inch thick, having somewhat the appearance of a slender mulberry; it has properties similar to the other, but is less powerful. Two species are said to furnish long pepper; these have been separated from the genus piper and placed in charica, the species standing now G. officinarum and G. Roxburghii. The principal consumption of this is in India. - For the Cayenne or red pepper, and the peppers of the gardens, see Capsicum; other species related to the common pepper are noticed under Betel and Cubebs.
Pepper (Piper nigrum).