Pink peppercorns are often thought of as a gourmet spice, packaged in small, expensive jars and called for in fancy cookbooks.
But in Southern California and other parts of the country, bucketfuls of the vibrant berries litter the ground all fall and winter, sometimes considered 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 — and here in a suburban backyard, they’re free for the taking.
The classic pink peppercorn comes from the Peruvian pepper tree (Schinus molle), also called the California pepper tree.
It grows wild in warm climates like Southern California, and throughout the central and southern regions of the United States, including Southern Arizona, Texas, Florida, Louisiana, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico. It’s become widely naturalized around the world, where it’s valued for its strong wood and dried berries, as well as shunned for its invasiveness (especially in the grasslands of Australia and South Africa).
Peruvian pepper trees are not to be confused with Brazilian pepper trees (Schinus terebinthifolius), which have similar berries but rounder and wider leaves. Though they are different species, the dried berries of both trees can be found in commercial peppercorn blends, and are labeled interchangeably as “pink peppercorns” or “red peppercorns.”
The pink pepper 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.
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. It has no relation to the green, black, or white peppercorn berries (Piper nigrum, or true pepper) grown throughout Asia.
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. Brazilian pink pepper, in particular, 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.
Peruvian peppercorns have a subtle aroma that you’ll also smell in the leaves and flowers.
In spring and summer, tiny, delicate flowers dot the branches and give off a peppery scent.
In fall and winter, the flowers give way to reddish-pink berries that are ripe for harvest. Harvesting is as simple as collecting a few clusters and laying them out to dry. (Check out this post about one of my peppercorn harvests.)
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.
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 overpowers them. They have a fruity and slightly spicy profile (like mild chile peppers) that complements seafood, salads, curries, cheese, chocolate, or popcorn.
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 December 2, 2014.