The tiny ball of pepper that falls from the store-bought whole-pepper container may seem ideal for planting. It's flavorful and perfect in its round, seed-like presentation. However, the seed that provides so much flavor needs more than a hard push into soil to create what you savor on your favorite spicy dishes.
A black pepper plant (Piper nigrum, USDA zone 12) is an attractive green addition to any garden indoors or outdoors. The flowering vine requires the right temperature, soil and water conditions to create long bunches of seeds that can be turned into flavorful peppercorns for use in cooking and baking.
Because this tropical vine may actually be damaged at temperatures below 50F, gardeners must grow it indoors year-round or in a heated greenhouse during winter (or when temperatures dip into the 50s). The other caveat for growing the black pepper vine is that it does not produce flowers or fruits (peppercorns) for up to seven years if grown from a seed, and seedlings may take up to four years to produce flowers and fruits.
What Are Peppercorns?
Pepper is often overlooked for all that the tiny granules of spice do for dishes and decoration. The flecks of green, black and grayish-white that fall from the pepper shaker add flavor and depth to a variety of dishes.
Growing peppers from seed can be tricky. If you have a jar of peppercorns that you bought from the store, more than likely they won't sprout if you plant them in a pot or a plot in your garden. The peppercorns in jars from the store have been heated for safe storage so they won't sprout while waiting for you to grind them over your favorite hot or cold entrée.
What Is a Black Pepper Plant?
The black pepper vine grows vertically and is native to India. It grows best in temperate climates, but you can persuade a plant to thrive under the right conditions in nearly any place in the world.
The Piper Nigrum plant produces tiny, fleshy fruit that contains a single seed. The peppercorn seeds are ground up to produce black pepper. If the seed is procured, planted and maintained under the right conditions, you can grow a lovely vine that will produce fruit and eventually peppercorns for your own use.
Can a Grocery Peppercorn Sprout?
Considering that the peppercorns that fill the grinder on your table are seeds, it would seem like you could plop a peppercorn directly from the container into the soil and grow your own spicy plant and seeds.
For best results, however, buy peppercorn plant seeds or seedlings from catalogs. You can try to grow black pepper plants from organic seeds that are bought from a whole foods or natural grocery store. Most of the seeds that wind their way through the manufacturing process to arrive at stores have been processed to the point where they will more than likely no longer be able to sprout.
Benefits of Growing a Black Pepper Vine
Black pepper vines are relatively easy to grow and can produce fruit that you can turn into peppercorns. Whether you hope to grow a black pepper vine for its shapely leaves or spicy fruit, this bright green vine is a fast grower and beautiful addition to any windowsill garden, patio pot or outdoor landscape.
Light for Growing a Black Pepper Plant
The black pepper plant likes to climb toward the light. It grows best when it can climb up tree trunks, balcony railings and any other structure with overhangs and natural canopies that can protect it from direct sunlight.
The black pepper tree plant prefers dappled light. When grown indoors with stakes or a trellis, it will enjoy a seat next to a window out of the sun or on a living room table that gets a good dose of sunshine throughout the day. It can take a few hours of direct sunlight but not a full afternoon of baking unprotected under the sun.
Don't forget that the black pepper plant is tropical, so it does not do well in colder climates. If you are growing it outdoors in places that can dip below 50 degrees, make sure you can bring it inside when the temperatures are too low for its needs.
How to Germinate Black Pepper Seeds
Once you have coaxed the seed to sprout, keeping it healthy in order to bloom and produce bunches of tiny peppercorns takes some care. For the seeds to be happy, they need a constant temperature. The best window of warmth for the tiny seeds to grow is rather narrow, between 75- and 80-degrees Fahrenheit.
To achieve this, you need the right soil. Peppercorns prefer a soil rich in organic matter. They should be planted a half-inch deep and an inch apart at least. Seeds need to be watered regularly in order to sprout.
While they love to be moist and humid as they move from seed to sprout, the water level should be monitored when the vine begins to grow beyond four leaves and a strong stem.
How to Grow Black Pepper Plants in Pots
The peppercorn plant grows best in a pot or basket. The viny plant will grow tiny twirls of tender stems that will need to wind their way around some sort of solid support so that they can thrive. It will need a trellis or at least a stake to give it support as it grows.
Black Pepper Plant Flowers
The black pepper plant grows dainty white flowers from the leaf nodes that branch out from new growth. The pendulous spikes are lovely to watch as they bloom and fade to fat, green peppercorns in long chains that drape from the main part of the plant.
A healthy black peppercorn plant will produce hundreds of peppercorns from a small pot and thousands if left to grow naturally in an ideal climate or indoor environment.
The black pepper plant is unusual in that it will flower all year long. This makes it an abundant producer of peppercorns.
Peppercorn Fruit for Collecting
The plant will produce green and red peppercorn fruits simultaneously. The fruit will turn from a bright pea-green color to red. They grow in lovely, long clusters.
The tiny green fruit isn't ready to shake from the vine. The red fruit should fall or be easily plucked from the vine's bendy stems.
For white and red pepper, gather the red peppers. For black or green pepper or a nice mix of both, choose the green peppers.
Pepper Leaf Black Spots
After doing all the work to coax your black peppercorn into maturity, it can be perplexing to watch as bits of black begin to bloom in spots on the backside of the multi-veined leaves. It's nothing to worry about and is completely normal, although it looks like a spreading disease or tiny bugs.
The black spots that appear on the back of pepper leaves are crystalline balls. They contain exudates, or sugars, that are a normal part of the plant's physiology. Don't attempt to clean them off or clip the leaves because this will damage the plant.
Black Pepper Plant Problems
If your plant isn't thriving, there may be a few things to examine before giving up on the small-leafed vine.
The black pepper plant naturally repels most pests. It can get mealybugs from neighbor plants that are already infected.
The black pepper plant can get root rot. While the vines like somewhat humid conditions, they don't like to get their feet wet. To prevent root disease, let the plant dry out between watering times if you are growing it in a clay pot. Outdoor plants should never hit 60 degrees Fahrenheit without being covered, mulched or otherwise protected from the chilly weather.
- Logee's Plants for Home & Garden: How to Grow Black Pepper
- Kitchen Home Gardener: How to Grow Black Pepper From Seeds
- Encyclopaedia Britannica: Black Pepper
- Gardening Know How: Black Pepper Information: Learn How To Grow Peppercorns
- Heirloom Organics: How to Grow Peppercorns: Guide to Growing Peppercorns
Kimberley McGee is an award-winning journalist with 20+ years of experience writing for a variety of clients, including The New York Times, Las Vegas Review-Journal Home section and other national publications. As a professional writer she has researched, interviewed sources and written about home improvement, interior design and related business trends. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Her full bio and clips can be viewed at www.vegaswriter.com.