CROPS

Growing black pepper for health and profit

Berry-bearing black pepper: Peppercorn matures in 5 to 6 months. (Henrylito D. Tacio)

By Henrylito D. Tacio

Filipino cuisine has been gaining recognition on the world stage, and just like any other cuisine, there are some secrets to it. One of those secrets is black pepper, known locally as paminta.

Adobo, touted to be the country’s food icon, is one of the Filipino dishes that is seasoned with black pepper. The following are also liberally spiced with black pepper: pork menudo, afritada, pata hamonado, pesang isda, nilagang baboy, paksiw na bangus, and bulalo.

This versatile spice appears in many forms such as powdered, crushed, or using the whole peppercorn itself. It’s been touted as the “king of spices,” providing a flavor profile of honey and citrusy notes.

Black pepper contains the following vitamins and minerals: vitamin A, thiamine (vitamin B1), riboflavin (vitamin B2), pantothenic acid (vitamin B5), vitamin B6, manganese, copper, iron, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, zinc and chromium.

Black pepper, which comes from the Sanskrit word pippali and known in the science world as Piper nigrum, was once known as black gold. It has one of the longest histories as a sought-after spice, due to its ability to flavor foods, act as a preservative, and add heat to a dish.

Ready to plant black pepper plants: Seedlings must be bought from reliable sources (Henrylito D. Tacio)

Local cultivation

Unknown to many Filipino farmers, black pepper – being a tropical plant – can be grown profitably in many areas of the country where the soil is well-drained and fertile. It can be planted as a boundary crop.

Black pepper, however, grows better under partial shade than in an open field, a characteristic that makes the plant good for backyard farming. It can also be grown between coffee and cacao trees. Most black pepper farms are found in Batangas, Laguna, Quezon, Negros Occidental, Zamboanga and Davao.

“There are four varieties of black pepper,” says the Davao-based Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center (MBRLC) Foundation, Inc., referring to large-leafed, small-leafed, tall, and short. “You can plant any of these varieties in your farm or backyard.”

Since black pepper is a creeping plant, it needs posts to climb on. Commonly used support trees – which are planted ahead of time – include ipil-ipil (Leucaena leucocephala), madre de cacao (Gliricidia sepium), and dapdap (Erythrina variegata). The supports must be at least three to four meters high, 2.5 meters between rows.

Here are more tips on growing black pepper from the MBRLC:

Black pepper can be propagated with cutting or with seeds. The latter is not recommended for commercial purposes. But either way, it’s necessary to have a propagation bed where the cuttings can be rooted or the seeds germinated and nursed to transplanting age. The seedling bed should be of fine, rich soil and should be located in a shaded area. It should  constantly be kept moist—not too wet and not too dry—at all times until the plants are ready for transplanting.

Black pepper: The berries should be mature before they are harvested. (Henrylito D. Tacio)

Transplanting and propagation

Only the berries that are orange or red in color are harvested for seed propagation. The berries should be picked only from vigorous, disease-free plants of the desired variety. It is a common practice to place the seeds in a cloth bag and soak them in water for two to three days before sowing. The seeds are sown in the bed six inches apart in rows and covered with fine soil about two inches thick.

The seedlings are ready for transplanting when they are about one-year old. In transplanting, it is advisable to retain as much of the soil clinging to the roots as possible. A reminder: Plants raised from seeds grow more slowly and require more care than plants grown from cuttings.

Cuttings for propagation should be taken from vigorous, heavy-yielding plants which are below the node and 20 inches or more in length, with plenty of roots at their joints. “Remove side branches,” MBRLC advises, “because they don’t climb, but sprawl.”

The cuttings are inserted into the soil of the bed in a slanting position with half their length buried. Cuttings are ready for transplanting when they show vigorous growth and are fully rooted. In transplanting, the seedlings should be “balled” or provided with plenty of soil clinging to their roots.

Black pepper can also be propagated by means of marcotting. Here are the steps: From the tip of a black pepper branch, look for the node with whitish aerial roots that are less than a centimeter long. Enclose the node in a container. Tie it securely to the support. A tin can, waxed paper cup, or a plastic bag can be used as a container for the marcot.

The container is filled with fine, dry humus or sandy loam soil. “Pour in a little at a time until it reaches the length of the internode just above the node to be marcotted,” MBRLC recommends. The marcotted seedling is watered lightly. The soil should not be pressed against the delicate roots.

After a month, the young marcot is cut from the mother plant. The stem is cut very close to the container using sharp pruning shears or a knife. The newly-cut marcot is placed in a bigger container such as a clay pot or a plastic bag. The delicate roots should not be disturbed. The marcot is then hardened by placing it in partial shade for three to four months. Watering it excessively is not recommended.

Berry-bearing black pepper: Peppercorn matures in 5 to 6 months. (Henrylito D. Tacio)

Planting

The rooted seedlings are transplanted at the start of the rainy season. Two or three seedlings are planted a few centimeters away from the base of each support tree. Before placing the plants in the prepared holes, the plastic bags are removed carefully so that the plants and soil are still holding together.

Black pepper should not be allowed to grow tall. As the vines climb the support poles, the tops should be pulled down as they reach the desired height of two to three meters. Every three months, manure or compost is applied to each hill to maintain plant growth. In addition, pests and diseases attacking the plants must be controlled. Weeding must be employed, too.

Black pepper starts to bear fruit, called peppercorn, as early as the first year after planting. Peppercorns mature in 5 to 6 months. The whole spike is ready for picking when the peppercorns in a spike turn cherry-red, turn from dark green to shiny yellowish green, or when they have a brownish cotyledon when pinched.

Generally, the first harvest of peppercorn, which varies from one-half to one kilogram per plant, is in its third year. Full production comes in the sixth or seventh year (the yield is approximately 1.5 kilograms per plant) and the plant produces continuously for 15 or more years.

The fruits on a bunch do not all mature at the same time. In backyard growing, only the mature ones are harvested and the green immature berries are left to be harvested later on. In commercial plantations however, to facilitate harvesting, the operation should be delayed until almost all fruits on a bunch have matured. Then the whole bunch could be gathered in a simple operation instead of picking the individual fruits one by one as they mature.

Black pepper yields both black and white pepper. The black peppercorn seen in the market is black pepper dried under the sun or solar radiation to 12% moisture content. The peppercorn is spread on mat and the spike removed, then peppercorn is winnowed, cleaned and stored in sacks.

To produce white pepper, the ripe berries are removed from spikes, then placed in bags and soaked in water. After soaking, the berries are allowed to ferment before the outer hull is removed by hands or by treading on berries with feet. The smooth, white kernels are immediately washed and dried.

When included in one’s farm plan, black pepper can be a good addition to one’s harvest, and therefore, profits.

Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio

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