pepper

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

pepper

pepper, name for the fruits of several unrelated Old and New World plants used as spices or vegetables or in medicine.

Old World (True) Peppers

Black pepper (Piper nigrum), the true pepper, is economically the most important species of the pantropical pepper family (Piperaceae). It is native to Java, whence it was introduced into other tropical countries. A perennial climbing shrub, it bears pea-sized fruits, the peppercorns of commerce. Black pepper, sold whole or ground, is the dried whole fruit; white pepper, made by removing the dark outer hull, has a milder and less biting flavor. Pepper owes its pungency to a derivative of pyridine. In the earliest days of commerce black pepper was a great luxury and a staple article of trade between India and Europe. So high was its price that a few pounds made a royal gift, and the great demand was one of the causes of the search for a sea route to the East. Pepper was valued by Hippocrates for its medicinal properties as a heart and kidney stimulant, and it is still used as a powder or tincture, as a local irritant or liniment, or as a gargle. Many other species of Piper are used medicinally throughout the tropics. The leaves of the betel pepper (P. betle) of the Indomalaysian region are a principal ingredient of the masticatory betel.

Cubeb is the name for the berry and for the oil obtained from the unripe berry of the East Indian climbing shrub P. cubeba. The dried fruits are sometimes used as a condiment or are ground and smoked in cigarette form as a catarrh remedy. The oil is used medicinally and also in soap manufacture. The masticated roots of kava, P. methysticum, widely grown in its native Pacific islands, are made into a beverage called kavakava, which contains soporific alkaloids. It is an integral part of religious and social life there. A preparation of kava for commerce, also called kavakava, is sold widely as an herbal remedy for anxiety and insomnia.

New World Peppers

The red peppers, native to warm temperate and tropical regions of America and widely cultivated elsewhere, are various species of Capsicum (of the nightshade family), especially the numerous varieties of C. frutescens. These bushy, woody-stemmed plants were cultivated in South America prior to the time of Columbus, who is said to have taken specimens back to Europe. The "hot" varieties include cayenne pepper, whose dried ground fruit is sold as a spice, and the chili pepper, sold similarly as a powder or in a sauce (one variety is known in the United States by the trade name Tabasco). The chili pepper is much used in cooking in Mexico, where some 200 varieties are known. Paprika (the Hungarian name for red pepper) is a ground spice from a less pungent variety widely cultivated in Central Europe.

The pimiento, or Spanish pepper, with a small fruit used as a condiment and for stuffing olives, and the sweet red and green peppers, with larger fruits used as table vegetables and in salads, are mild types. (The pimiento should not be confused with the pimento or allspice, of the myrtle family.) A variety of C. frutescens with delicate leaves and cherrylike fruit is grown as an ornamental and house plant.

Classification

True pepper is classified in the division Magnoliophyta, class Magnoliopsida, order Piperales, family Piperaceae.

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