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Peruvian Pink Peppercorns: A Surprising Backyard Forage

Peruvian pink peppercorns: a surprising backyard forage

If you think about it, wild food is everywhere around us. Our backyards have dandelions growing so rampant, we constantly try to eradicate them.

Public fruit trees beg to be gleaned, miner’s lettuce is a weed with a gourmet reputation, easy hikes will bring you upon scores of stinging nettles and fennel.

The East Coast has ramps springing up every year in shady woodlands. Northern California has chanterelles and blackberries in abundance.

And in Southern California, there’s Peruvian pepper, also known as the pink peppercorn tree. These are the same pink peppercorns you see in stores as a gourmet spice, packaged in small, expensive jars and called for in fancy cookbooks.

A Peruvian pink pepper tree with willow-like branches hanging down
A cluster of pink pepper tree stems on a counter

But in Southern California and other parts of the country, bucketfuls of these vibrant berries litter the ground in suburban neighborhoods all through fall and winter, free for the taking. More often than not, they’re dismissed as a nuisance by the gardener who has to rake them all up.

It almost seems like a food crime to let heaps of peppercorns lay forgotten when just a few miles away, they command upwards of $10 an ounce at specialty spice shops.

Because while they look like (and are often grown as) landscape ornamentals in residential backyards and municipal sidewalks, the pink peppercorns from Peruvian pepper trees are 100 percent edible!

Related: 11 Vegetables You Grow That You Didn’t Know You Could Eat

Stems full of ripe Peruvian pepper tree berries on a counter

Peruvian pepper tree vs. Brazilian pepper tree

The classic pink peppercorn comes from the Peruvian pepper tree (Schinus molle), which is also called the California pepper tree (although it’s particularly invasive in Florida and Hawaii).

Peruvian pepper is not to be confused with its cousin, the Brazilian pepper tree (Schinus terebinthifolius), which has similar berries but rounder and wider leaves resembling holly. (And to make things more confusing, the pink peppercorns from Brazilian pepper trees are sometimes called Madagascar pepper—but they are one and the same.)

Though they are different species, the dried reddish-pink berries of both trees are used in commercial peppercorn blends, and are labeled interchangeably as “pink  peppercorns” or “red peppercorns.”

The pink peppercorn tree featured here belongs to a friend and reaches over 30 feet in height—towering above his two-story home in Long Beach, California. Its drooping growth habit reminds me a lot of weeping willow, with evergreen branches that dangle with clusters of pink berries.

A mature Peruvian pink peppercorn tree growing in a backyard
Branch full of ripe berries on a pink peppercorn tree

The berries are known as drupes, or fruits that bear a single seed. The hard, woody seed (wrapped inside a papery pink husk) is the “peppercorn,” though Peruvian pepper is not an actual pepper at all.

Pink peppercorn has no relation to the green, black, or white peppercorn berries (Piper nigrum, or true pepper) grown throughout Asia and used as a spice. It’s known as a “false pepper” and is actually a member of the cashew family.

(This connection to cashews is what gives pink peppercorns an unfair reputation as being poisonous—more on that below.)

Long sweeping branches on a pink peppercorn tree draped in ripe berries

Where is Peruvian pink pepper found?

Peruvian pepper is an evergreen tree with a weeping canopy of branches, native to Northern Peru in the high desert of the Andes.

It’s become naturalized around the world, where it’s cultivated for spice production, and in some parts it’s even considered a serious weed—taking over savanna and grasslands in South Africa, and forests and coastal areas in Australia.

Peruvian pepper likes hot climates and can be found in the Southwest (Arizona and California), Central California, Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico.

In Southern California, Peruvian pepper trees grow wild all over the Palos Verdes Peninsula, as well as the Greater Los Angeles inland valleys and foothills. (I’ve foraged berries from Piru Creek in Northern Los Angeles County.) You can even find rows of trees lining the streets around Disneyland in Anaheim.

The leaves and flowers of Peruvian pepper trees have a subtle peppery aroma. In spring and summer, tiny, delicate flower buds dot the branches. In fall and winter, the flowers give way to reddish-pink berries that are ready for harvest.

With Peruvian pepper trees ripening in fall and winter, the end (or beginning) of the year is the perfect time to start foraging!

Close-up of reddish-pink Peruvian pepper berries

How to harvest pink peppercorns

Harvesting pink peppercorns is as simple as collecting a few clusters of berries from a Peruvian pepper tree.

Step 1: Look for branches with ripe pepper tree berries.

Cut off a segment of branch with a good amount of reddish-pink berries on it. They’re easy to find as they’re usually the clusters draping off the ends of the tree.

A cluster of freshly harvested pink pepper berries on stems

Step 2: Dry the peppercorn berries.

Gently pull the fresh berries off the branches with your fingers. Sometimes I’m able to do this quickly by running my fingers firmly down a branch to strip off the berries (the way you might take thyme or rosemary leaves off a stem).

Don’t worry if you get some stems in the mix—though it won’t give you a “clean” harvest, there’s no harm in having a few bits and pieces of stems in with your spice.

Spread the berries out on a plate or cookie sheet, and leave them out on the counter to dry at room temperature.

Foraged pink pepper tree berries drying on a blue plate

Within a few days, the berries will fully dry and harden into peppercorns.

A Peruvian pepper berry consists of a shell surrounding a single seed. During the drying process, the shell may crack and separate to reveal a brownish pink seed inside.

This separation is similar to how white peppercorns are made—the outer shells are removed from the berries of black pepper plants and the seeds themselves become white peppercorns.

If your berries are dried in a sunny spot, the shell may become bleached as it shrinks around the seed to create the hard, wrinkled outer layer so familiar as peppercorns.

Peruvian pink peppercorns with hardened and shriveled tan shells

Sometimes the shell stays intact and you’ll have smooth peppercorns, but you can eat any of these pink peppercorns (shelled or not).

Peruvian pink peppercorns with smooth pink shells still intact

What can you do with pink peppercorns?

Because of their delicate, paper-thin skins (which tend to get stuck in a traditional pepper grinder), I like to grind my pink peppercorns with a mortar and pestle, or crush them with the flat side of a heavy knife to release their oils.

Pink peppercorns being crushed with a mortar and pestle

I don’t blend them with black and green pepper (the way you typically see pink peppercorns sold in the store), as I feel true pepper overwhelms them.

Pink peppercorns taste differently than black peppercorns. They have a fruity and slightly spicy profile (like mild chile peppers) that complements seafood, salads, curries, cheese, chocolate, or popcorn.

Since Peruvian pink peppercorns are relatively mild, they can be used whole in recipes without being too overpowering. They’re still spicy and peppery, but have a very fragrant, sweet-tart and rosy tone.

The flavor would work well in light sauces, fruity vinaigrettes, or desserts. I think I’ll even try them in place of black peppercorns in my pickling spices, especially when I want a bit more sweetness.

Make this: 4 Ways to Pickled Green Tomatoes

As with any spice, pink peppercorns should be stored away from direct sunlight and heat to preserve flavor. It will keep for at least six months, after which it may start to decline in quality (which simply means you’ll have to use more of it to get the same potency as freshly dried pink peppercorns).

Read next: Get More Organized With This Simple DIY Spice Drawer Hack

Peruvian pink peppercorns stored in a spice jar

Are pink peppercorns toxic?

Here’s an interesting chapter in the pink peppercorn tree’s family history that most people don’t know…

The Peruvian pepper tree belongs to Anacardiaceae, otherwise known as the cashew family, a group that also includes poison sumac, poison oak, and poison ivy. Pink pepper’s connection to this notorious family means it earned a bad rap in the 1980s for being a potentially toxic plant.

That’s because the Brazilian pink pepper was once banned from importation after the Food and Drug Administration received reports of consumers having adverse reactions to the berries.

It enjoyed a brief moment in the culinary spotlight when it was introduced in 1980, hailed as an emblem of French nouvelle cuisine.

But researchers soon began documenting cases of human toxicity including “violent headaches, swollen eyelids, shortness of breath, chest pains, sore throat, hoarseness, upset stomach, diarrhea, and hemorrhoids,” symptoms that are consistent of those with poison ivy reactions, according to this 1982 article by The New York Times.

The French government protested the FDA ban, insisting that pink peppercorns grown and imported from the island of Réunion, near Madagascar, were non-toxic due to the trees growing on different soil under different conditions.

With uncertainty on whether or not they’d poison their customers, chefs stopped cooking with pink peppercorns, markets stopped selling them, and the once-trendy spice fell out of public favor by 1983.

The French eventually submitted research that proved their Brazilian pink peppercorns were non-toxic, and the FDA dropped its ban.

Rainbow peppercorn blends gradually made their way into shops and kitchens  again, with few answers to explain the spate of severe reactions that were previously documented.

Today, it’s believed that allergic reactions are limited to people who are allergic to tree nuts (since pink pepper trees come from the cashew family) or those who are sensitive to the sap of poison ivy.

What’s not known is how much of the spice one has to ingest in order to experience any ill effects. Most people don’t chew on handfuls of pink peppercorns at a time, so with the tiny amounts used in cooking, it’s unlikely to cause reactions in those without serious allergies to related plants.

In addition, there have been no documented cases of people experiencing reactions to Peruvian pink pepper. It’s widely enjoyed these days in all types of cuisine, whether the peppercorns are purchased from a store or foraged from a tree.

Close-up of reddish-pink Peruvian pepper berries still on their stems

Do you have a pink pepper tree growing in your yard? Or do you live in an area where pink pepper trees grow in abundance? Please share where you’ve seen them!

This post updated from an article that originally appeared on November 10, 2011.

Linda Ly About Author

I'm a plant lover, passionate road-tripper, and cookbook author whose expert advice and bestselling books have been featured in TIME, Outside, HGTV, and Food & Wine. The No-Waste Vegetable Cookbook is my latest book. Garden Betty is where I write about modern homesteading, farm-to-table cooking, and outdoor adventuring — all that encompass a life well-lived outdoors. After all, the secret to a good life is... Read more »

47 Comments

  • Avatar
    Nancy
    January 27, 2021 at 9:27 am
    • Linda Ly
      Linda Ly
      February 5, 2021 at 9:09 pm

      Thanks for the recommendation!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Chrissy
    January 26, 2021 at 9:30 pm

    I’m in Santa Barbara county, and there are quite a few of these in the park across from me. I used them in my wedding bouquet and I have a few branches decorating my home office!

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      Linda Ly
      February 5, 2021 at 9:18 pm

      That sounds so pretty!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Shelli
    January 15, 2021 at 6:24 am

    I now live in central Mexico and the Peruvian Tree is everywhere. Like you, it reminds me of the weeping willow but with the added bonus of those lovely little pink beads!! I don’t think that the people here know that it can be eaten. I am definitely going to have to go pick some from the park around the corner!!
    Thanks you,
    Shelli

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      Linda Ly
      January 18, 2021 at 1:18 am

      Enjoy them Shelli! I’m in Oregon now and sometimes I miss having such easy (and free!) access to pepper trees.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Ed may
    January 10, 2021 at 10:45 am

    Hello. I wanted to see if you could help me identify what it mink is a pink peppercorn tree? The berries look like what you’ve shown in your article but the tree leaves are different. Can I send you a picture? Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      Linda Ly
      January 18, 2021 at 1:31 am

      Peruvian pepper trees and Brazilian pepper trees have similar berries but different leaves. I wouldn’t want to misidentify a tree though. I suggest taking a sample to your local cooperative extension office or emailing them for help, as they’ll be more familiar with what grows in your area.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Edie Ogborn
    December 1, 2020 at 9:59 pm

    We have a couple trees around the corner I a vacant lot. I have always been afraid to eat them although I love the smell of them.
    I will be harvesting some tomorrow!!
    We also have carob trees by the dozens in town . I love getting the pods . My dogs love them for treats.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    A person
    November 19, 2020 at 11:14 am

    In Rancho Cucamonga, both the Peruvian and Brazilian trees are here.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Paul Macky
    September 14, 2020 at 3:15 pm

    Canary Islands!! Very tropical climate perfect for the growth of these wonderful little gems!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Imogen Rolfe
    September 9, 2020 at 5:32 am

    Hi Linda! Glad I found your article as I’ve been tossing up whether to take advantage of the abundance of pink pepper corn trees that grow around here in Australia. Would you still recommend buying them in a store or are they safe enough to take from the trees? Thanks! Imogen

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Evelyn Poth
    March 23, 2020 at 3:54 pm

    I’m having trouble separating stem from berry. Ant tips?

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Linda from Garden Betty
      March 25, 2020 at 11:57 pm

      Wait for the stems to dry out a bit, then put them in a brown paper bag and give a good shake… that might help separate the berries? (It’s how I sometimes collect flower seeds.)

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Yuri Opexu Hazenko
    March 2, 2020 at 12:01 am

    Madagascar pink peppercorn is this the same thing?

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Linda from Garden Betty
      March 9, 2020 at 7:55 pm

      Yes, same.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Jeremy Heyl
    March 14, 2019 at 5:51 pm

    Kathy and I stayed at a VRBO rental outside Los Olivos last year that had a huge pepper tree in the yard. I took home several clusters and dried them out. Just like you said, I used a mortar and pestle and even though they were completely dried out, they gave off a lot of oil. I like that its adds something when I BBQ that people can’t seem to pin down.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Linda from Garden Betty
      June 10, 2019 at 1:22 am

      I miss the pepper trees in California. 🙂 Need to plan a visit this winter to restock my pink pepper stash!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Dawn Nelmes
    January 22, 2019 at 1:59 pm

    Just found some on the Canary Islands. Have just crushed a few…they smell amazing. Excited to use them in my cooking 🙂

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Linda from Garden Betty
      February 6, 2019 at 2:45 am

      Oh nice! Do you have the Peruvian or Brazilian kind on the Canary Islands?

      Reply
      • Avatar
        Dawn Nelmes
        February 6, 2019 at 8:43 am

        Not sure. They look like the ones in your photo.

        Reply
        • Avatar
          Linda from Garden Betty
          June 10, 2019 at 1:39 am

          Peruvian. 🙂

          Reply
  • Avatar
    Doris Baublit
    January 17, 2019 at 3:46 pm

    Pepper trees grow/grew down the length of Euclid Avenue in Ontario/Upland California when I lived there. I don’t know if they are still there. Use to love the smell of them. I don’t know which variety they are.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Linda from Garden Betty
      February 6, 2019 at 2:40 am

      I think they make beautiful landscaping trees. They grew all over the Palos Verdes Peninsula when I lived in SoCal, and I loved seeing them dripping with berries.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Jeanette Christine Nunez
    November 1, 2017 at 6:46 pm

    Hello, I’m pretty sure my trees are the Brazilian variety. Could you tell from a picture? Some sources say the Brazilian ones are poisonous.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Linda from Garden Betty
      November 9, 2017 at 5:15 am

      The leaf shape is different between the Peruvian and Brazilian varieties. As to whether the Brazilian pepper tree is poisonous, it’s in the same family as poison ivy, so contact with any part of the tree can possibly cause the same reaction in people who are allergic.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    JR Jarrett
    December 26, 2016 at 2:11 pm

    Thank you for your suggestions. After harvesting them, had no idea how to use them so this is very concise. Excited to try them. Thanks!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Eric Brewer
    June 28, 2016 at 11:57 am

    Has anyone found a way to easily clean the peppers from the surrounding brittle branches? (I’m beginning to think the shockingly high cost of pink peppercorns is because of the effort required to clean them.)

    Reply
    • Linda Ly of Garden Betty
      Linda Ly of Garden Betty
      October 15, 2016 at 3:09 am

      I pull or shake them off the branches by hand pretty easily, but if you look at my pictures, you’ll see that sometimes a few stems remain. It’s never been an issue, flavor-wise.

      Reply
    • Avatar
      marie ramos
      August 17, 2018 at 8:08 pm

      HA. I just started doing this and wanted to look up an easier way to strip them. Eric, I think you’re right. This is a pain in the a**

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Beth O.
    December 10, 2014 at 5:33 pm

    Did you wash them first? What’s the easiest way to get the peppercorns off the stem?

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      Linda Ly
      December 15, 2014 at 6:20 pm

      No, I don’t wash them (and you don’t have to either, assuming your tree is wild or grown without pesticides). To get the peppercorns off the stems, I just run my hand down the stem and strip them off in one swoop. They come off very easily. Here’s a post I wrote about harvesting the berries: http://www.gardenbetty.com/2011/11/peruvian-pink-peppercorns/

      Reply
  • Avatar
    thefolia
    December 2, 2014 at 5:44 pm

    Thank you for your help! I touched them to arrange them in a vase and so far so good.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    thefolia
    December 2, 2014 at 11:47 am

    Brilliant minds think alike…I just posted about a pepper tree too, I think mine is a Brazilian since it doesn’t droop like a Peruvian or Californian…what to you think…inquiring minds want to know… http://thefolia.com/2014/12/01/gather-around-the-pepper-tree/

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      Linda Ly
      December 2, 2014 at 4:36 pm

      Definitely a Brazilian pepper tree! You can harvest peppercorns from that variety as well.

      Reply
      • Avatar
        thefolia
        December 2, 2014 at 4:39 pm

        Thank you that’s what I thought, I was hesitant about trying it because of the possibility of an allergic reaction.

        Reply
        • Linda Ly
          Linda Ly
          December 2, 2014 at 5:19 pm

          Both Schinus species can cause allergic reactions in people who are sensitive to members of the cashew or sumac family, but since you use so little of it as a spice, you may or may not react to pink pepper. Best to consult an allergist on this.

          Reply
  • Avatar
    Iris
    June 23, 2014 at 7:05 pm

    Beautiful images! Thanks for sharing! All the pepper berry trees in Irvine California are blooming. the blossoms are sweet and fragrant and delicious. That said, I can’t find any info on whether or not I should be eating these little blossoms. They’re great in potato salad. Have you read anything?

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      Linda Ly
      June 25, 2014 at 2:11 pm

      I’ve never tried pepper berry flowers, but since we do eat the fruit (the pepper berries themselves) then I’d assume the flowers are edible as well.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Harvesting Peppers
    May 27, 2013 at 8:44 pm

    Thank for a clear and consice explanation of how to harvest these red berries. Good thing you mentioned their affinity to cashews. My daughter is highly allergic so I’ll have to monitor how and when I use them. As in Anaheim, the city of Upland lined their main corridor , Euclid, with this tree. Many thanks!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Peter Murray
    May 17, 2013 at 4:42 am

    I am in Australia and we have heaps of the “Pink pepper” trees everywhere even here on Kangaroo Island have just picked my first bunch can’t wait to try them

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Thislittleredcat
    August 9, 2012 at 7:46 am

    I see you posted this a while ago, but thank you so much for doing so. I live in South Africa and just found a TON of these but the locals said they don’t eat them. I picked them and wanted to cook with them but wasn’t sure they were what I thought they were! Amazing!

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      Linda Ly
      August 17, 2012 at 2:45 pm

      Seeing as these trees are so invasive in South Africa, the locals probably aren’t keen on eating “weeds.” Their loss, your gain!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Glycineblanche
    November 27, 2011 at 3:13 am

    C’est magnifique. Bonne journée.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Melissa
    November 10, 2011 at 6:21 am

    Makes me miss So Cal!  Love the blog and can’t wait to hear all about those chickens!

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      Linda Ly
      November 11, 2011 at 11:22 pm

      Thanks Melissa! Let me know when you come out for a visit, I’ll give you a coop tour. 🙂

      Reply
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