Pepper, one of the world's most important spices, comes from the fruit (peppercorns) of a flowering shrub, in the genus Piper, family Piperceaea. The pepper plant originates from India, which is still the world's largest producer of pepper. The plant grows in hot, humid regions such as India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brazil. The United States is the world's largest importer of pepper. At the time when Europeans were searching for new sea routes to the East, in search of spices, pepper was worth its weight in gold and was often exchanged instead of money. When a sea route around Africa's Cape of Good Hope was discovered, the price of pepper in Europe dropped dramatically.
Piper nigrum (black pepper) is the best known and most used species of pepper. This plant is a woody vine, mostly cultivated in plantations. Thick, glossy-green, ovate leaves grow alternately on the stem, opposite spikes of delicate flowers that grow in clusters. The berries that follow are the pungent fruit, or peppercorns. Black pepper is a perennial, and yields fruit when about three years old. It reaches full maturity, and produces a full crop, at seven to eight years old, and can continue to bear fruit for 20 years.
The peppercorns may be harvested at different stages of ripeness. Green peppercorns are picked before they are fully ripe, and are used fresh, pickled, or carefully dried, to retain their color. Black peppercorns, having the strongest flavor, are obtained by drying the immature, green berries in the sun until they are wrinkled and black. Berries left on the plant to fully ripen are red. The red peppercorns are soaked and peeled, producing white peppercorns. Pepper is used to flavor foods, and is considered to be a digestive stimulant.
Other species of peppers, such as P. longum, P. cubeba, and P. guineense, produce peppercorns that are used locally for medicinal purposes, or are made into oleoresins, essential oils, or used as an adulterant of black pepper. Berries of pepper trees from the genus Schinus, family Euphorbiaceae, are not true peppers, but are often combined with true peppercorns for their color, rather than their flavor. Schinu terebinthifolius is the source of pink peppercorns, but must be used sparingly, because they are toxic if eaten in large quantity.
Betel leaf (P. betel) chewing, practiced by the Malays of Malaysia and Indonesia, is as popular as cigarette smoking in that region. Chewing the leaves aids digestion, decreases perspiration, and increases physical endurance.