Peruvian pink peppercorns
Garden of Eatin', Trees & Shrubs

Peruvian Pink Peppercorns

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 fiddleheads. The East Coast has ramps springing up every year in shady woodlands. NorCal has chanterelles and blackberries in abundance. And here in SoCal, we have Peruvian pepper.

Peruvian pepper branches

Peruvian pepper berries

Also known as California pepper (although it’s particularly invasive in Florida and Hawaii), Peruvian pepper (Schinus molle) is an ornamental 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 is not related to the black pepper we all grind for spice, nor is it a true pepper at all; it’s actually a member of the cashew family. But its pink berries are harvested, dried, and sold as the pink peppercorns you often find in commercial peppercorn blends.

Its cousin, the Brazilian pepper, has rounder and stubbier leaves (resembling holly) but bears the same reddish pink berries also used for pink peppercorns. Just think — this gourmet spice could be growing right in your own neighborhood!

To turn the ripe pink berries into peppercorns, harvest fresh berries off the branches and lay them on a plate or cookie sheet to dry out at room temperature. Within a few days, the berries will harden and be ready for use.

Peruvian pepper berries laid out to dry

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.)

Brownish pink seeds from Peruvian pepper berry

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.

Bleached and dried pink peppercorns

Sometimes the shell stays intact and you’ll have smooth pink peppercorns.

Smooth pink peppercorns

The peppercorns can be ground in any form, but since Peruvian pink peppercorns are milder than black peppercorns, 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.

But, some words of caution — if you’re allergic to cashews, mangos, poison ivy or any member of the Anacardiaceae family, it might be wise to find out if you can tolerate pink peppercorns. (Though used in such small quantities as a spice, this may not be an issue.)

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 (my berries were gleaned from Piru Creek in Northern Los Angeles County). You can even find rows of trees lining the streets around Disneyland in Anaheim.

With Peruvian pepper trees ripening in fall and winter, now is the perfect time to start foraging!

Fresh Peruvian pepper berries

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  • Jeanette Christine Nunez

    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.

    • 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.

  • JR Jarrett

    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!

  • Eric Brewer

    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.)

    • 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.

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  • Iris

    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?

    • 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.

  • Harvesting Peppers

    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!

  • Peter Murray

    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

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  • Thislittleredcat

    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!

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

  • C’est magnifique. Bonne journée.

  • Melissa

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

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

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