Peruvian Pepper (Schinus molle, also known as American pepper, Peruvian peppertree, escobilla, false pepper, molle del Peru, pepper tree,peppercorn tree, Californian pepper tree, pirul and Peruvian mastic is an evergreen tree that grows to 15 meters (50 feet). It is native to the Peruvian Andes. The bright pink fruits of Schinus molle are often sold as “pink peppercorns” although S. molle is unrelated to true pepper (Piper nigrum)
Schinus molle is a quick growing evergreen tree that grows to 15 meters (50 feet) tall and 5–10 meters (16–33 feet) wide. 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 8–25 cm long x 4–9 cm wide and are made up of 19-41 alternate leaflets. Male and female flowers occur on separate plants (dioecious). Flowers are small, white and borne profusely in panicles at the ends of the drooping branches. 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.
S. molle is native to the arid zone of Northern South America and Peru’s Andean deserts, and goes to Central Chile and Central Argentina. It has, however, become widely naturalized around the world where it has been planted as an ornamental and for spice production. S. molle is a drought tolerant, long-lived, hardy evergreen species that has become a serious invasive weed internationally. In South Africa, for example, S. molle has
invaded savanna and grasslands and become naturalised along drainage lines and roadsides in semi-desert. It is also invasive throughout much of Australia in a range of habitats from grasslands to dry open forest and coastal areas, as well as railway sidings and abandoned farms. In the United States, either S. molle or its close relative Schinus terebinthifolius is particularly invasive in Florida and Hawaii, and can also be found in southern Arizona, southern California, Texas, Louisiana and Puerto Rico.
Although not related to commercial pepper (Piper nigrum) the pink/red berries, like the berries of its close relative the Brazilian pepper (S. terebinthifolius), are sold as pink peppercorns and often blended with commercial pepper. The fruit and leaves are, however, potentially poisonous to poultry, pigs and possibly calves. Records also exist of young children who have experienced vomiting and diarrhea after eating the fruit.
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, with recent studies in mice providing
possible support for its antidepressant effects. It has also been speculated that S. molle’s insecticidal properties make it a good candidate for use as an alternative to synthetic chemicals in pest control.
The word ‘molle’ in ‘Schinus molle’ comes from the Quechua word for the tree, ‘molli’.The Inca used the sweet outer part of ripe fruit to make a drink. Berries were rubbed carefully to avoid mixing with the bitter inner parts, the mix strained and then left for a few days to produce a drink. It was also boiled down for syrup or mixed with maize to make nourishing gruel.
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.
The tree reproduces through seed, suckers and cuttings. Seeds have a particularly hard coat and germination rates are greatly improved after seeds have passed through the gut of birds or other animals. Seeds germinate in spring, with seedlings slow growing until established.