The California Pepper Tree

The Californian pepperThe Californian pepper tree, the Schinus molle is also known as the Peruvian pepper, the American pepper, Peruvian peppertree, escobilla, false pepper, molle del Peru, pepper tree, peppercorn tree, pirul and Peruvian mastic. It is an evergreen tree unrelated to the true pepper tree (Piper nigrum). Native to the Peruvian Andes, it has been transplanted to California, where it is now well established.
In recent weeks, the California pepper tree has been at the center of controversy in Upland. As one of the most common trees in the Euclid Avenue Median, scores of California peppers there were demarked for removal after the city’s public works division neglected them during the drought and failed to maintain them, and the lack of trimming and pruning led to a circumstance in which the extended limbs have now grown brittle to the point of breakage, representing a potential liability. A significant number of residents, intent on keeping the city from destroying trees, has initiated an intensive lobbying campaign to prevent their removal. The issue has not fully played out.
Schinus molle is a quick growing evergreen tree that will reach 50 feet in height and 16 to 33 feet in width. It is the largest of all Schinus species and potentially the longest lived. The upper branches of the tree tend to droop. The tree’s pinnately compound leaves measure 3.5 inches to 10 inches 28–25 cm long by two to four inches cm wide and are made up of 19-41 alternate leaflets. The flowers are small, white and borne profusely in panicles at the ends of the drooping branches. The flowers are dioecious, meaning individual flowers are either male or female, but only one gender is to be found on any one plant so both male and female plants must be grown if seed is required. The fruit are 5–7 mm diameter round drupes with woody seeds that turn from green to red, pink or purplish, carried in dense clusters of hundreds of berries that can be present year-round. The rough grayish bark is twisted and drips sap. The bark, leaves and berries are aromatic when crushed.
Native to the arid zone of Northern South America and Peru’s Andean deserts, and Central Argentina and Central Chile, it has, however, become widely naturalized around the world where it has been planted, known for its strong wood. It was used as part of the Spanish colonies’ supply sources for saddles; as an ornamental and for spice production.
Although not related to commercial pepper (Piper nigrum), the dried and roasted pink/red berries are used as a pepper substitute. The berries are sold as pink peppercorns and often blended with commercial pepper. Some caution is advised, as fruit and leaves are potentially poisonous to poultry, pigs and possibly calves. Records also exist of young children who have experienced vomiting and diarrhea after eating the fruit. Presently Schinus molle lacks generally recognized as safe (GRAS) status with the FDA
An essential oil distilled from the fruit is used as a spice in baked goods and candy. The fruits are pulverised and used in cooling drinks called horchatas in South America and syrups. A wine is made from the twigs and another from the berries. A gum that exudes from the bark is used for chewing.
There is also significant archaeological evidence that the fruits of S. molle were used extensively in the Central Andes around 550-1000 AD for producing chicha, a fermented alcoholic beverage.
In traditional medicine, S. molle was used in treating a variety of wounds and infections due to its antibacterial and antiseptic properties. It has also been used as an antidepressant and diuretic, and for toothache, rheumatism and menstrual disorders. Recent studies in mice provide possible support for its antidepressant effects. It has been speculated but not yet demonstrated that S. molle’s insecticidal properties make it a good candidate for use as an alternative to synthetic chemicals in pest control.
Fresh green leaves in bunches are used shamanically in Mesoamerican traditional ceremonies for cleansings and blessings.
The Incas used the oil from its leaves in early mummification practices to preserve and embalm their dead.

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