Piper nigrum, black pepper, is a climbing vine in the Piperaceae (pepper family) native to the Malabar region of southwestern India that became one of the most sought-after spices of the ancient and medieval world (along with other spices, including cardamom, Elettaria species, cinnamon, Cinnamomum species, cloves, Syzygium aromaticum, and nutmeg, Myristica fragrans and other species). Black pepper was carried as cargo by Arabian camel caravans, and the search for new trade routes for transporting spices was part of the impetus for the discovery of the New World during the Age of Exploration. Black pepper is now grown in various tropical regions, including India, Indonesia, and Brazil, and remains one of the most important spices in the world.
Black pepper is not closely related to chili and cayenne pepper varieties (including bell or green peppers), which from Capsicum annuum and C. frutescens, in the Solanaceae. Other spices of different genera that are sold as peppers include pink pepper, Schinus molle, Guinea pepper (Xylopia aethiopica), Szechuan pepper (Zanthoxylum piperitum), and melegueta pepper (Aframomum melegueta). However, black pepper is in the same genus as several other cultivated species of economic importance, including betel (P. betle) and kava (P. methisticum), and several other species of Piper may be used as a spice similar to black pepper.
Black pepper is a stout-stemmed liana (woody vine) that may typically grows to 4 m (13 ft), and may send out roots from leaf nodes if they touch the ground. The leaves, which may be rather different on climbing than on flowering stems, are typically large and heart shaped, 12.5 to 18 cm (5 to 7 in) long, with 5 to 7 prominent palmate veins. The small flowers, which are usually monoecious (with separate female and male flowers) but may be polygamous (with individual inflorescences that contain both male and female flowers), are borne on spikes that are about as long as the leaves. The fruits are small globose drupes (a fleshy fruit containing a seed with a hard, stony covering), 3 to 4 mm (less than 0.25 in) in diameter, ripens to red. Pepper plants grow easily in the shade and require little maintenance until harvest, so they are frequently cultivated for supplemental income on even small farms.
Pepper is used in various forms. The fresh unripe green fruits may be harvested, then pickled or freeze-dried, to make green pepper. For “black” pepper, the fruits are harvested green, but then sun-dried; the skin of the unripe fruits turns black when dry. The fruits may also be allowed to ripen, after which the red skin is removed, and the stony seed sun-dried to make white pepper.
Pepper in its various forms is used in diverse dishes around the world. Before Europeans brought Capsicum peppers from the New World, black pepper was the primary seasoning in many Indian and southeastern Asian dishes. It is used as a spice in nearly any type of savory dish, and is featured in various sauces and meat dishes.
(Bailey et al. 1976, Cornillez 1999, Hedrick 1919, van Wyk 2005, Wikipedia 2012.)