Botanicals of the Month: February

Plant of the Month:  Black Pepper (Piper nigrum)

doTERRA Essential Oil of the Month:  Black Pepper

Rishi Tea of the Month:  West Cape Chai

Looking for an unusual gift for a longtime valentine this month?  Your search is over!  Open up your spice cabinet and reach for the black pepper.  Plant folklore says black pepper carries the meaning of both fidelity and love, making it strangely appropriate for February 14th.  It doesn’t stop there.  Your faithful valentine’s present is also thought to have protective powers.  In folk magic, the practice of carrying a pouch with a bit of black pepper in it is said to offer protection against the evil eye or from having persistent envious thoughts.  On the home front, a mixture of equal parts black pepper and natural sea salt scattered around your property is supposed to rid any evil and protect it from returning.  Some folks have even gone so far as to throw a pinch of black pepper mixed with salt in the footsteps of any unwanted visitors to prevent them from coming back!

Historically known as “black gold” for its high value on spice trade routes, peppercorns were once used as a trade currency in lieu of money.  There was a time when a pound of black pepper could free a serf and was included in many maiden dowries.  Ever heard the term “peppercorn rent?”  The phrase is still used and refers to when a nominal fee, once paid in peppercorns, is charged to rent a property.  Today, this reigning “king of spices” is the most widely traded spice in the world, accounting for 20-45% of all worldwide spice imports.  Black pepper is big business.

Piper nigrum is native to the lush and humid tropical forests of southwest India.  Leaves are heart-shaped and the tiny white or light yellow-green flowers bloom along with a spike.  As the flowers become fruit, the spikes turn pendulous, eventually forming draping chains of berries.  The berries turn from immature bright pea-green to fully ripened red.  Here’s where it gets interesting.  Green, red, white, and black peppercorns are all from the same fruit of the black pepper plant, harvested at varying stages of development and processed differently.  For green or black peppercorns, berries are harvested at the unripe green.  For white or red peppercorns, berries are harvested at ripened red.  Each color possesses a slightly different flavor. 

Dried peppercorns, unground, will last indefinitely. Cracked pepper has a shelf life of about one year, and the ground is only viable for about 3 months.  Many chefs, however, say that for access to the best flavor and health benefits, grind your own.  The Farmer’s Almanac actually recommends toasting your peppercorns in a dry skillet to activate some of the volatile compounds, then grinding them.

If you enjoy the taste of black pepper, you don’t have to limit yourself to just peppercorns.  You may want to try the essential oil of black pepper.  It’s used for cooking, aromatherapy, internally as a digestive aid, and topically as a warming rub to stimulate circulation.  Nutritionist Sherry L. Granader even recommends putting a few drops of black pepper essential oil on the bottom of your feet if you have trouble waking up from a nap, as well as before heading out for a walk in the cold weather, as it supports healthy circulation and has a warming effect on the feet.

Medicinally, science has also been uncovering some of the black pepper’s health-boosting qualities.  Studies have shown that piperine, the plant compound responsible for black pepper’s pungent taste, possesses antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, and anti-cancerous properties.  Adding black pepper to your meal can also increase nutrient bioavailability, allowing certain nutrients to be more readily absorbed into your bloodstream.  Ayurvedic medicine, traditional Chinese medicine, and even the ancient Romans have all turned to black pepper to help digestive problems and provide gas relief.

Try the West Cape Chai tea pick for the month, which has a hint of black pepper in the ingredients. Black pepper has also been used as a cold and cough remedy for centuries, as it is said to help break up phlegm and mucus.  Don’t forget to add it to your chicken soup the next time you are battling a cold!  Join me in trying some recipes that call for white, green, and red peppercorns, and from here on out, fresh is best, so I’m grinding my own!  Happy Valentine’s Day!

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