Garden of Eatin' / Trees & Shrubs

Peruvian Pink Peppercorns

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

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 »

24 Comments

  • 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
    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
    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
    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
    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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