Piper nigrum L.

First published in Sp. Pl.: 28 (1753)
This species is accepted
The native range of this species is SW. India. It is a climber and grows primarily in the wet tropical biome. It is used as animal food, a poison and a medicine, has environmental uses and for food.


Biogeografic region: Andean. Elevation range: 500–1500 m a.s.l. Cultivated in Colombia. Colombian departments: Antioquia, Tolima.
Habitat according IUCN Habitats Classification: forest and woodland.

Kew Species Profiles

General Description

Black pepper fruits are the source of one of the world's most widely and frequently used spices. Black, white and green peppercorns all come from Piper nigrum and are popularly used as a hot and pungent spice for flavouring food. Black pepper is also used in traditional medicine, particularly for digestive ailments.

The term peppercorn rent is derived from the high price of black pepper during the Middle Ages in Europe, where it was accepted in lieu of money or as a dowry. Today this term means exactly the opposite - virtually free!

Species Profile
Geography and distribution

Black pepper is native to the Western Ghats of Kerala State in India, where it grows wild in the mountains.

It is cultivated all over the tropics as a commercial crop. Vietnam, Indonesia, Brazil and India are the major producers.


Overview: A climber that grows to a height or length of 10 m or more. Once the main stem is established it grows many side shoots to create a bushy column.

The plants form short roots, called adventitious roots, which connect to surrounding supports.

Leaves: Almond-shaped, tapering towards the tip, dark green and shiny above, paler green below, arranged alternately on the stems.

Flowers: Borne in clusters along flowering stalks known as spikes. 50-150 whitish to yellow-green flowers are produced on a spike.

Fruits: Round, berry-like, up to 6 mm in diameter, green at first but turning red as they ripen, each containing a single seed. 50-60 fruits are borne on each spike.

Fruits are picked when green and immature to produce green pepper; when fully grown but still green and shiny to produce black pepper; and when slightly riper to produce white pepper (for which the fruits are also soaked to remove the fleshy outer layer).

Other pepper plants

Other plant species are also known as pepper or peppercorns and are used in a similar way as black pepper, for example, Indian long pepper, Piper longum , which has a milder flavour than black pepper. It is native from Assam to Burma, and is a cultivated crop in the drier regions of India.

Pink pepper is obtained from Schinus terebinthifolia (Brazilian pepper tree). It grows as a tree, is in a different plant family, Anacardiaceae (cashew family), from black and long pepper and is native to South and Central America. Its pinkish-red fruits often enter European markets where it is used as a black pepper-like flavouring.

Sichuan pepper, a common spice used in Asian cuisine, is obtained from Zanthoxylum species (citrus family, Rutaceae).

Peppercorns should not be confused with chilli peppers ( Capsicum species) such as Capsicum annuum (potato family, Solanaceae).

Uses Food

Piper nigrum (black pepper) mixed peppercorns. The fruits of Piper nigrum are used to make black pepper. This hotly pungent spice is one of the earliest known and most widely used spices in the world today. It is used as flavouring, particularly for savoury foods, meat dishes, sauces and snack foods. It is also used as a table condiment.

Black pepper, white pepper and green peppercorns are all produced from Piper nigrum fruits, but are harvested at different times and are processed differently.

India is a key producer of black pepper and exports much of what is grown. Peppercorns from Malabar and Tellicherry in Kerala, India, are particularly prized for their flavour and pungency.

Black pepper is also used to produce pepper oil and oleoresin, which are frequently used in the production of convenience foods and sometimes also for perfumery.

Of lesser importance is the use of preserved immature green pepper or fresh pepper fruits, which are eaten more like a vegetable.

Traditional medicine

Black peppercorns feature as remedies in Ayurveda, Siddha and Unani medicine in South Asia. They are most frequently used as an appetizer and to treat problems associated with the digestive system, particularly to eradicate parasitic worms. Some traditional uses of black pepper are supported by scientific evidence.

In Ayurvedic medicine, black pepper has been used to aid digestion, improve appetite, treat coughs, colds, breathing and heart problems, colic, diabetes, anaemia and piles. Stomach ailments such as dyspepsia, flatulence, constipation and diarrhoea are all treated with black pepper, which may be mixed with other substances such as castor oil, cow's urine or ghee.

Black pepper has been prepared in tablet form as a remedy for cholera and syphilis, sometimes combined with other substances. It has also been used in tooth powder for toothache, and an infusion of black pepper has been suggested as a remedy for sore throat and hoarseness. Black pepper may be chewed to reduce throat inflammation.

Externally, it has been applied as a paste to boils and to treat hair loss and some skin diseases. Oil of pepper is reputed to alleviate itching. A mixture of sesame oil and powdered black pepper has been recommended for application to areas affected by paralysis. A mixture of black pepper and honey is regarded as a remedy for night blindness. Black pepper has been given by inhalation to comatose patients. It is also believed to be useful against hepatitis, urinary and reproductive disorders. In Ayurveda and Siddha medicine, a paste made using white pepper is applied to treat some eye diseases.

In Unani medicine, black pepper has been described as an aphrodisiac and as a remedy to alleviate colic. A preparation called 'jawa rishai thurush' is composed of pepper, ginger, salt, lemon juice and the plants vidanga (Embelia ribes; Primulaceae, primrose family) and mint (Mentha species; Lamiaceae). It has been prescribed to alleviate indigestion and stomach acidity.

Western medicine

Black peppercorns contain compounds called alkaloids. One of these is piperine, reported to act as a central nervous system depressant and to have anti-fever, pain-relieving, anti-inflammatory and insecticidal effects. Some experiments suggest black pepper and its constituent piperine may have potential in the treatment of vitiligo (loss of skin pigment) as it helps increase pigmentation in the skin.

Black pepper is also reported to have anti-fungal and anti-oxidant properties.

Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage

The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life worldwide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in our seed bank vault.

A collection of Piper nigrum seeds is held in Kew's Millennium Seed Bank based at Wakehurst in West Sussex.


Black pepper is a tropical vine with attractive almond-shaped leaves, which needs to be grown indoors in temperate regions. With patience it can be grown as a houseplant to produce peppercorns (although plants need to be several years old before they fruit).

Propagation is usually by seed. Plants are not unduly affected by pests or diseases (even aphids dislike the taste of the leaves).

This species at Kew

Black pepper can be seen growing in the Palm House and Princess of Wales Conservatory at Kew.

Dried and spirit-preserved specimens of Piper nigrum are held in Kew's Herbarium where they are available to researchers by appointment. The details of some of these specimens can be seen online in Kew's Herbarium Catalogue.

Specimens of the seeds, roots and fruits of black pepper, as well as pepper oil obtained from it, are held in Kew's Economic Botany Collection, where they are available to researchers by appointment.

Montane tropical evergreen forest.
Widely cultivated and not considered to be threatened.

None known.


Bernal, R., Gradstein, S.R. & Celis, M. (eds.). 2015. Catálogo de plantas y líquenes de Colombia. Instituto de Ciencias Naturales, Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Bogotá. http://catalogoplantasdecolombia.unal.edu.co

Cultivada en Colombia; Alt. 500 - 1500 m.; Andes, Valle del Magdalena.
Morphology General Habit

Bernal, R., G. Galeano, A. Rodríguez, H. Sarmiento y M. Gutiérrez. 2017. Nombres Comunes de las Plantas de Colombia. http://www.biovirtual.unal.edu.co/nombrescomunes/

pimentero, pimienta, pimienta blanca, pimienta de Castilla, pimienta negra, pimienta picante

Extinction risk predictions for the world's flowering plants to support their conservation (2024). Bachman, S.P., Brown, M.J.M., Leão, T.C.C., Lughadha, E.N., Walker, B.E. https://nph.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/nph.19592

Predicted extinction risk: threatened. Confidence: confident

Piperaceae, Bernard Verdcourt. Flora of Tropical East Africa. 1996

Morphology General Habit
Climbing, scrambling or ?erect glabrous shrub to 6 m..
Morphology Stem
Stems with swollen nodes.
Morphology Leaves
Leaves rounded ovate to ovate-elliptic or elliptic, 8–17.5 cm. long, 3.5–7.5(–11) cm. wide, acuminate at the apex, rounded at the base, with pinnate nerves but all at base in basal 1/4–1/8 of leaf length; petiole 1–1.5(–2.5) cm. long.
Morphology Reproductive morphology Inflorescences
Spikes 3–10 cm. long; peduncles ± 1 cm. long.
Morphology Reproductive morphology Flowers
Flowers hermaphrodite or unisexual and if so then plants monoecious or dioecious ( fide Steyerm.)
Morphology Reproductive morphology Inflorescences Bracts
Bract adnate to rhachis, free at margin only.
Morphology Reproductive morphology Flowers Androecium Stamens
Stamens 2–3.
Morphology Reproductive morphology Flowers Gynoecium Stigma
Stigmas 3–5, sessile.
Morphology Reproductive morphology Fruits
Fruits black, globose, 5–6 mm. long, 4 mm. wide.


Use Animal Food
Used as animal food.
Use Environmental
Environmental uses.
Use Gene Sources
Used as gene sources.
Use Food
Used for food.
Use Materials
Used as material.
Use Medicines
Medical uses.
Use Poisons

Food, medicine.

Common Names

Black Pepper, Black pepper


  • Angiosperm Extinction Risk Predictions v1

    • Angiosperm Threat Predictions
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  • Catálogo de Plantas y Líquenes de Colombia

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  • Colombian resources for Plants made Accessible

    • ColPlantA 2021. Published on the Internet at http://colplanta.org
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  • Flora of Tropical East Africa

    • Flora of Tropical East Africa
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  • Herbarium Catalogue Specimens

    • Digital Image © Board of Trustees, RBG Kew http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/
  • Kew Backbone Distributions

    • The International Plant Names Index and World Checklist of Vascular Plants 2024. Published on the Internet at http://www.ipni.org and https://powo.science.kew.org/
    • © Copyright 2023 World Checklist of Vascular Plants. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0
  • Kew Living Collection Database

    • Common Names from Plants and People Africa http://www.plantsandpeopleafrica.com/
  • Kew Names and Taxonomic Backbone

    • The International Plant Names Index and World Checklist of Vascular Plants 2024. Published on the Internet at http://www.ipni.org and https://powo.science.kew.org/
    • © Copyright 2023 International Plant Names Index and World Checklist of Vascular Plants. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0
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  • Kew Species Profiles

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  • Universidad Nacional de Colombia

    • ColPlantA database
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  • Useful Plants and Fungi of Colombia

    • http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0