The black pepper plant (piper nigrum) is mostly grown commercially in hot climates. However, you can also grow it at home given the right conditions.
Here are some tips on how to grow black pepper (peppercorn) from seeds and cuttings, as well as how to harvest and store it.
The plant is a beautiful vine having blossoms bloom as pretty white flowers before setting their fruits as drupes.
Peppercorn plants thrive best in the tropics. They do well in high temperatures and humid conditions. But, it can adapt to cool and dry climates.
The peppercorn plant is native to India . However, it is also widely cultivated in countries like Brazil, Indonesia, and other tropical areas where conditions are ideal.
Growing it at home needs attention to certain requirements.
High temperatures and humidity need to be constant and dappled shade provided from full sun if necessary. So, choose an area in your garden that receives at least 6 hours of indirect sunlight per day.
Additionally, cold conditions need more sunlight for the plants to thrive. Growing black pepper indoors may only require partial sunlight. In this case, placing the plant near a window is ideal.
Peppercorn plants need well-draining soil with a pH between 6.2 and 7.0. Medium clay humus-rich soil to retain some moisture but with good drainage.
This requires a balancing act between avoiding dry conditions that are unproductive and overwatering that can rot the plants and encourage insect pests and diseases.
Water consistently and thoroughly, 2 to 3 times per week, or when the soil surface is dry. Constantly moist, not swamped, is a good maxim.
Black pepper needs plenty of sunshine for healthy development. However, very hot conditions may mean providing some shade.
You can use a fine shade cloth to create filtered partial shade. The head of the plant needs to receive the sun and the lower parts to be kept shaded.
Prepare the ground with well-aged manure or nutrient-rich compost. The plants aren’t heavy feeders and will benefit from liquid fertilizer applied every two weeks.
They will also benefit from an addition of some Epsom Salt to encourage stronger growth. Pot-grown plants need a little side dressing of compost in the growing season.
Black pepper plants thrive on humidity and plenty of it. To assist in this, mist the plants frequently with soft water. For pot plants, place a saucer of water underneath to increase the humidity level.
One option is to grow in a humid bathroom or even in the kitchen (they are attractive plants, fortunately). But, they will need sufficient lighting.
Mulching with good organic mulch is encouraged to prevent evaporation and drying. Mulch twice per year with leaves, straw, grass clippings, etc. Organic mulches will also keep down weeds.
Black pepper vines can reach up to 30 feet long. Therefore, install a trellis a few inches away from the plant. Secure it properly into the ground so it can support the plant’s vines.
Grow From Seeds
To grow peppercorn trees from seed, soak the seeds overnight in lukewarm water. Next, prepare growing pots/containers with quality potting mix and some aged manure or compost to a ratio of about 3:1.
Poke holes in the soil only about a quarter to a half-inch below the surface and no more than three inches apart. Afterward, drop the seeds in and cover them with soil and a thin layer of mulch or straw.
Plant indoors, water well, and keep the soil moist and warm. Germination should take place in 30-40 days.
Also, allow the seedlings to grow in indirect sunlight. Provide overhead shade until 5 to 6 inches tall when they will be ready to plant outside.
Growing From Cuttings
Black pepper vines produce three kinds of shoots — runner, climbing, and fruit-bearing shoots. However, the usual procedure is to propagate cuttings from runner shoots at the base of the mother plant.
Around February or March, separate the selected runner shoots from the existing vine, cutting from the middle section. Next, cut the shoots into two or three-node cuttings for planting.
Remove any leaves and dip the ends of the cuttings in a rooting compound such as E-Z Root.
Lastly, place the cuttings in polythene bags or pots with well-draining soil where they will begin to strike roots. Remember too that the soil must be moist. Plant out in May or June.
How Long Does a Black Pepper Plant Take to Grow?
Patience is necessary as the plants are slow-growing and may take several years for fruits to develop. You may have to wait up to 5 years for it to bloom and produce peppercorns.
When ready to fruit, the flowers will begin to form in the spring and early summer with the berry fruits developing in clusters. However, once it matures, you will have the plant to reap from year after year.
Pests and Diseases
Root rot is the most common disease affecting pepper plants. Overwatering is one of the causes.
Pests like aphids, slugs, and scale insects can also attack the plants. And spider mites can become a great nuisance if grown indoors. Flea beetles and weevils may affect the plants in cooler climates.
However, you can try various organic methods of pest control to eliminate them.
You may need to allow plants two to five years of mature growth before harvesting fruits. However, you can buy an adult plant if you wish to harvest sooner.
A modest-sized peppercorn tree can yield hundreds of peppercorns, and it can live up to 35 years.
When ready for harvesting, the peppercorn fruits will turn light red. Pluck only the red berries, being careful to avoid picking the unripe ones.
Next, spread out your peppercorns in direct sunlight on hot concrete or a flat surface like a baking pan. Allow them to dry in the sun where they will shrink and turn black.
How to Store Peppercorns
You can store peppercorns for up to 4 years in an airtight container. Keep it in a cool, dry place and away from any direct sunlight.
If the pepper is freshly ground, place it in resealable clear bags and store it as above. The color and smell will tell if it is no longer flavorful.
As with all fresh produce, there is nothing to beat something homegrown. Black pepper is no exception.