THE SHOWY CALIFORNIA PEPPER TREE
By Christopher Nyerges
[Nyerges is the editor of Wilderness Way magazine, author of "Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants" and other books, and a manager at the Tuesday Highland Park Farmers Market. He can be reached at Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, orwww.ChristopherNyerges.com
The California pepper tree (Schinus molle) is widespread in Southern California and Arizona, and some surrounding states. It is a large, stately tree with feathery, fern-like leaves that droop from the large limbs, giving it a very graceful appearance. It is somewhat misnamed since it is not from California – I have been told that it’s originally from Brazil -- and it is not the plant where we normally get pepper (as in "salt and pepper").
I have always liked the appearance of this tree – it has a quality that I would call "Southern." You can easily imagine one of these large trees next to some old Southern estate, along side a weeping willow tree.
This is an easy-to-grow tree that tolerates drought, making it a desirable landscape tree. On the other hand, just as many gardeners dislike the fact that the limbs get so large that they occasionally drop, and that the leaves and small red seeds constantly drop.
Though not botanically related to the usual peppers we use as a dinner spice, you actually can take these little seeds and use them as condiments in the same way you’d use regular peppercorns.
The California pepper tree seeds are small, like the size of a BB. There is a pink papery outer shell, and within there is a hard seed. The flavor is delicate and enjoyable, but these are much more powerful than ordinary peppers. The California pepper seeds must be ground, and then added sparingly into soups, bread, stews, and other foods. Go moderate at first until you experience how much of the pepper you can tolerate.
Ground fine and added to bread batter, these peppers add a delicate flavor to bread. We’ve had it ground fine and added to soups and stews many times, and enjoy it more than regular pepper. But be sure to grind the seeds. We recall when we first started experimenting with these seeds, Dolores would toss some whole seeds into soup. We had a dinner gathering one night, and one of our guests decided to chew on the whole seed. It left him coughing and choking for several minutes.
For best results, we’ve found that we should pick the pink seeds off the ground or off the tree. Then we set them in an uncovered bowl for a few weeks for them to dry and season. The pinkness will eventually fade and this is the better time to use the seeds for seasoning. You should remove all the stems before grinding, but you don’t need to remove the pink outing shell of the seed.
Sometimes woodworkers will make beautiful bowls and cups from the wood of this tree. And since the tree gets so large and might require periodic prunings, the wood can be available even if it is not cut down.
This is a great tree to know if you happen to live in its zone. It is a fairly widespread tree, and is also easily grown. I have even seen these pink peppers in some speciality stores, either mixed with regular pepper or alone.
If you don’t have any near where you live and would like to try some, one package of the seeds is $6 (price includes postage) from Survival Seeds, Box 41834, Los Angeles, CA 90041.