The pepper plant is a perennial woody vine growing to around four metres in height on supporting trees, poles, or trellises. Black pepper is native to India. Within the genus Piper, it is most closely related to other Asian species such as Piper caninum.
It is a spreading vine, rooting readily where trailing stems touch the ground. The leaves are alternate, entire, five to ten centimetres long and three to six centimetres broad. The flowers are small, produced on pendulous spikes four to eight centimetres long at the leaf nodes, the spikes lengthening to seven to 15 centimeters as the fruit matures.
Black pepper likes soil neither too dry nor susceptible to flooding, moist, well-drained and rich in organic matter (the vines do not do too well over an altitude of 3000 ft above sea level). The plants are propagated by cuttings, the roots covered in leaf mulch and manure, and the shoots are trimmed twice a year.
The plants bear fruit from the fourth or fifth year, and typically continue to bear fruit for seven years. A single stem will bear 20 to 30 fruiting spikes. The harvest begins as soon as one or two fruits at the base of the spikes begin to turn red, and before the fruit is mature, but when full grown and still hard; if allowed to ripen, the fruits lose pungency, and ultimately fall off and are lost. The spikes are collected and spread out to dry in the sun, then the peppercorns are stripped off the spikes.
Pepper has been used as a spice in India since prehistoric times. Pepper is native to India and has been known to Indian cooking since at least 2000 BCE. Peppercorns were a much prized trade good, often referred to as "black gold" and used as a form of commodity money. The term "peppercorn rent" still exists today.
Until well after the Middle Ages, virtually all of the black pepper found in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa travelled there from India's Malabar region. By the 16th century, due to the Portuguese influence, pepper was also being grown in Java, Sunda, Sumatra, Madagascar, Malaysia, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, but these areas traded mainly with China, or used the pepper locally.
Black pepper, along with other spices from India and lands farther east, changed the course of world history. It was in some part the preciousness of these spices that led to the Portuguese efforts to find a sea route to India during the age of discovery and consequently to the Portuguese colonial occupation of that country, as well as the European discovery and colonisation of the Americas.
Black peppercorns were found stuffed in the nostrils of Ramesses II, placed there as part of the mummification rituals shortly after his death in 1213 BCE. Pepper was known in Greece at least as early as the 4th century BCE, though it was probably an uncommon and expensive item that only the very rich could afford. Trade routes of the time were by land, or in ships which hugged the coastlines of the Arabian Sea. Black pepper was also a well-known and widespread, if expensive, seasoning in the Roman Empire. Today, pepper accounts for one-fifth of the world's spice trade.
Pepper is known to cause sneezing. Some sources say that piperine, a substance present in black pepper, irritates the nostrils, causing the sneezing; Few, if any, controlled studies have been carried out to answer the question. It has been shown that piperine can dramatically increase absorption of selenium, vitamin B, beta-carotene and curcumin as well as other nutrients.
Pepper gets its spicy heat mostly from the piperine compound, which is found both in the outer fruit and in the seed. Black pepper contains between 4.6% and 9.7% piperine by mass, and white pepper slightly more than that. Refined piperine, by weight, is about one percent as hot as the capsaicin in chili peppers. The outer fruit layer, left on black pepper, also contains important odour-contributing terpenes including pinene, sabinene, limonene, caryophyllene, and linalool, which give citrusy, woody, and floral notes. These scents are mostly missing in white pepper, which is stripped of the fruit layer. White pepper can gain some different odours (including musty notes) from its longer fermentation stage.