What’s white, green, and black and once upon a time was called gold?

It grows  on a vine like this:


The vine is usually trained to grow up tall trees like this:



To harvest the fruit you must climb up using a lightweight bamboo pole or ladder, so as not to damage the vines.

This is what you are after.


This is the size.



Have you guessed what it is?

It’s the pepper plant, where all our table pepper comes from.


images-3Kerala India  pepper
Pepper is native to South Asia and Southeast Asia and has been known to Indian cooking and folk medicine since at least 2000 BCE. The most important source of the spice during prehistory was India, particularly the Malabar Coast, in what is now the state of Kerala.

Kerala is located here:


The story of pepper becoming a global commodity is the same old story that this poor old earth and its inhabitants have endured throughout history.

The peoples of India scoured every living thing for its value as food and discovered the sharp bite of these berries that grew green upon the vine but fell to earth when ripe and darkened over the days in the heat and sun. It enhanced their other foodstuffs and seemed to have medicinal properties as well. Next thing you know, you’ve got a commodity that other people want.

As always, as I compose this post below, I am grateful to Wiki for salient details and info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_pepper and to Google images for the pictures.  I love the internet!! You can spot my sometimes fatalistic remarks in italics.  Sorry. I can’t help myself. I’m just older and wiser than I used to be.

Va bene, so, here’s what we know about who knew about pepper in the western world:

Egypt:   Black peppercorns were found stuffed in the nostrils of Ramesses II, placed there as part of the mummification rituals shortly after his death in 1213 BCE. Little else is known about the use of pepper in ancient Egypt and how it reached the Nile from South Asia.

Greece:   Pepper was known in Greece at least as early as the 4th century BCE, though it was probably an uncommon and expensive item that only the very rich could afford. Trade routes of the time were by land, or in ships which hugged the coastlines of the Arabian Sea.

Herodotus, the so-called Greek father of history, wrote about pepper harvesting which he’d either heard about or simply imagined, for he said that the fruits of the pepper vine were captured through snakes. Sounds crazy but it was as good an explanation as anyone else had. You can read about Herodotus’s view here:



Romans:    By the time of the early Roman Empire, especially after Rome’s conquest of Egypt in 30 BCE, open-ocean crossing of the Arabian Sea direct to southern India’s Malabar Coast was near routine. According to the Roman geographer Strabo, the early Empire sent a fleet of around 120 ships on an annual one-year trip to China, Southeast Asia, India and back. The fleet timed its travel across the Arabian Sea to take advantage of the predictable monsoon winds. Returning from India, the ships travelled up the Red Sea, from where the cargo was carried overland or via the Nile-Red Sea canal to the Nile River, barged to Alexandria, and shipped from there to Italy and Rome. The rough geographical outlines of this same trade route would dominate the pepper trade into Europe for a millennium and a half to come.




With ships sailing directly to the Malabar coast, black pepper was now travelling a shorter trade route than long pepper, and the prices reflected it. Pliny the Elder’s Natural History complains about the high prices in Rome around 77 CE.

Black pepper was a well-known and widespread, if expensive, seasoning in the Roman Empire. Apicius’ De re coquinaria, a 3rd-century cookbook probably based at least partly on one from the 1st century CE, includes pepper in a majority of its recipes. Edward Gibbon wrote, in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, that pepper was “a favorite ingredient of the most expensive Roman cookery”.

Post Roman Empire:  The taste for pepper (or the appreciation of its monetary value) was passed on to those who would see Rome fall. Alaric the Visigoth included 3,000 pounds of pepper as part of the ransom he demanded from Rome when he besieged the city in 5th century. After the fall of Rome, others took over the middle legs of the spice trade, first the Persians and then the Arabs; Innes Miller cites the account of Cosmas Indicopleustes, who travelled east to India, as proof that “pepper was still being exported from India in the sixth century”. By the end of the Early Middle Ages, the central portions of the spice trade were firmly under Islamic control. Once into the Mediterranean, the trade was largely monopolized by Italian powers, especially Venice and Genoa. The rise of these city-states was funded in large part by the spice trade.

It is commonly believed that during the Middle Ages, pepper was used to conceal the taste of partially rotten meat. There is no evidence to support this claim, and historians view it as highly unlikely: in the Middle Ages, pepper was a luxury item, affordable only to the wealthy, who certainly had unspoiled meat available as well. In addition, people of the time certainly knew that eating spoiled food would make them sick.

Similarly, the belief that pepper was widely used as a preservative is questionable: it is true that piperine, the compound that gives pepper its spiciness, has some antimicrobial properties, but at the concentrations present when pepper is used as a spice, the effect is small. Salt is a much more effective preservative, and salt-cured meats were common fare, especially in winter. However, pepper and other spices certainly played a role in improving the taste of long-preserved meats.


The Age of Discovery and later:  The exorbitant prices of pepper and other spices (including Indigo) during the Middle Ages—and the monopoly on the trade held by Italy—was one of the inducements which led the Portuguese to seek a sea route to India. In 1498, Vasco da Gama became the first person to reach India by sailing around Africa. Though this first trip to India by way of the southern tip of Africa was only a modest success, the Portuguese quickly returned in greater numbers and eventually gained much greater control of trade on the Arabian sea. The 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas with the Spanish granted Portugal exclusive rights to the half of the world where black pepper originated.

How nice for the Portuguese.  How tragic for the native inhabitants. The same old sad story repeated ad infinitum.

Unsurprisingly, the Portuguese proved unable to monopolize the spice trade. Older Arab and Venetian trade networks successfully imported enormous quantities of spices, and pepper once again flowed through Alexandria and Italy, as well as around Africa. In the 17th century, the Portuguese lost almost all of their valuable Indian Ocean trade to the Dutch and the English who, taking advantage from the Spanish ruling over Portugal (1580–1640), occupied by force almost all Portuguese dominations in the area. The pepper ports of Malabar began to trade increasingly with the Dutch in the period 1661–1663.

Peppercorns were a much-prized trade good, often referred to as “black gold” and used as a form of commodity money. The legacy of this trade remains in some Western legal systems which recognize the term “peppercorn rent” as a form of a token payment made for something that is in fact being given. In the Dutch language, “pepper expensive” (peperduur) is an expression for something very valuable.



Whew, that was a lot of history!  So, let’s talk horticulture for a break.




The pepper plant is a perennial woody vine growing up to 13 ft in height on supporting trees, poles, or trellises. It is a spreading vine, rooting readily where trailing stems touch the ground. The leaves are alternate. The flowers are small, produced on pendulous spikes 1.6 to 3.1 in long at the leaf nodes, the spikes lengthening up to 2.8 to 5.9 in as the fruit matures. The fruit of the black pepper is called a drupe and when dried is known as a peppercorn.


The plants bear fruit from the fourth or fifth year, and typically continue to bear fruit for seven years. The cuttings are usually cultivars, selected both for yield and quality of fruit.

A single stem will bear 20 to 30 fruiting spikes. The harvest begins as soon as one or two fruits at the base of the spikes begin to turn red, and before the fruit is fully mature, and still hard; if allowed to ripen completely, the fruit lose pungency, and ultimately fall off and are lost. The spikes are collected and spread out to dry in the sun, then the peppercorns are stripped off the spikes.


Today, pepper accounts for one-fifth of the world’s spice trade and Vietnam is the world’s largest producer and exporter of pepper, producing 34% of the world’s Piper nigrum crop as of 2013.

Pepper oil is also used as an ayurvedic massage oil and used in certain beauty and herbal treatments. As a folk medicine, pepper appears in the Buddhist Samaññaphala Sutta, chapter five, as one of the few medicines allowed to be carried by a monk. Pepper contains phytochemicals, including amides, piperidines, pyrrolidines and trace amounts of safrole which may be carcinogenic in laboratory rodents. Piperine is under study for a variety of possible physiological effects, although this work is preliminary and mechanisms of activity for piperine in the human body remain unknown.

Next time you grind some pepper on your food, think of all of this history in those tiny little peppercorns that pack such a punch.

One thought on “What’s white, green, and black and once upon a time was called gold?

  1. Pingback: Red gold. | get back, lauretta!

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