Men Who Garden Don't Need Viagara


Guess why he’s smiling! Photo:

There must be a hundred reasons why gardening is good for you and here’s one specifically for men. Gardening, according to a study by the Medical University of Vienna, can help prevent erectile dysfunction. 

In fact, as little as 30 minutes a week digging, weeding or mowing the lawn can grammatically improve a man’s performance in bed. And those who spend even more time in the garden can halve their risk of erectile dyfunction.

Of course, this only confirms something already fairly well-known: that moderate excercise, be it from gardening, dancing or cycling, is simply good for you. 

“Erectile function can be maintained even by low, regular physical activity,” concludes the report. “Energy expenditure of as little as 1,000 calories a week reduces the risk. Doctors should use these findings to encourage their patients to do more physical training and adopt a healthier lifestyle.”

Some Like It Cold: Cold Treatment for Seeds


Ill.: &, montage:

Probably 95% of the seeds you might want to sow in your garden: annuals, vegetables, etc. need no pretreatment of any kind: you just sow them, water once and up they come! 

However, that doesn’t hold if you start growing perennials, trees and shrubs, at least those from cold and temperate climates. Oddly, many of these plants won’t germinate—or will germinate poorly or irregularly—unless they go through a prolonged period of cold weather. This process is called “cold stratification” because originally the seeds were layered (stratified) between layers of moist soil before exposing them to cold, but term “vernalization” is also used. The term “cold treatment” seems to be gaining ground, though, and it really does best explain the process.

The most obvious way of giving seeds a cold treatment is to sow them outside in the fall, but that often leaves them exposed to insects, mammals and inclement weather. It’s far safer to give seeds their cold treatment indoors, where you can keep a closer eye on them … and where nothing can eat them. It’s usually carried out in January or February so the young plants will be ready to plant out come spring.

Giving hardy seeds a cold treatment replicates what happens in the wild. There, the seeds fall to the ground in the autumn and remain there all winter, exposed to cold and moisture. Then they germinate in the spring when the weather warms up. 

The need for cold stratification developed over many millennia as a way of preventing seeds from germinating at the wrong season. Seeds that don’t need cold stratification often start to germinate when the weather is unusually warm in the late fall or when there is a January thaw, then the fragile seedlings are killed when cold weather returns. Those that have an obligatory need for stratification, however, won’t react to unseasonal conditions. They essentially have an internal clock telling them: “Look, it’s too early to germinate! Wait a few months more before you start to sprout.” In general, the longer the winters are in the plant’s native land, the longer the cold treatment it will require.

Cold and Moist

Beginners often don’t understand one vital detail: it’s not cold alone that stimulates germination, but cold combined with moisture. So you can’t just place the seed packets in a fridge for a few months and expect the seeds to germinate well, you need to put them into contact with moist soil first.

The other common error is freezing the seeds. Although most of these seeds will tolerate freezing temperatures, freezing the seeds is not necessary and actually slows the process down. For best results, give temperatures just above freezing, between 34 °F and 41 °F (1 °C and 5 °C). And as luck would have it, the temperature of a typical home refrigerator falls right in that range: about 35 °F to 40 °F (1.6 °C to 4.4 °C).

A cold treatment is pretty basic: just sow the seeds and put them in the fridge. Photo:

At the end of the cold treatment, remove the containers from the fridge and place them in a warm bright spot (about 70 to 75˚F/21 to 24˚C is ideal for most seeds) to stimulate germination. Many of these seeds are fairly slow to germinate, so don’t be surprised if they take 3 or 4 weeks to sprout, sometimes even longer.

All these seeds require a minimum number of weeks in the cold, but there is no maximum. So, no harm comes if you prolong the cold treatment beyond the minimum.

After their cold treatment, the seeds will start to germinate.

From this stage on, simply treat the seedlings like any other. After germination, remove the plastic bag. Start watering whenever the soil starts to dry out. Fertilize when the plants have about four to five true leaves, etc. Finally, when the weather outdoors warms up enough, start acclimatizing the seedlings to outdoor conditions (place them in the shade for two or three days, then in partial shade for two or three days, then in the sun for two or three days). 

Once they’re well acclimatized, transplant them either to a nursery (plants, such as trees, shrubs and slow-growing perennials, that will take more than a year to be presentable) or directly to their final location (annuals and fast-growing perennials).

No Space in Your Fridge?

You can also sow the seeds in packs of moist vermiculite or perlite. Photo:

If you lack space in your fridge, you can try a different method of cold stratification. Simply mix the seed in a few spoonfuls of moist vermiculite, perlite or potting soil. Seal the mix in a small plastic bag and put it in the fridge (this takes much less space and you can even pile your bags of seeds one on top of the other). When their cold period is up, simply lay the seed bags somewhere warm and fairly bright. As soon as you see little sprouts start to appear, very carefully pot up each seedling in its own little pot and water. Then proceed from there as above, growing them on and eventually planting them out.

Double Cold Stratification

For some seeds, a single cold treatment is not enough. It takes two! These seeds are very slow to germinate in the wild, often taking 2 or 3 years before they show any sign of life. However, you can get them germinate the very first year treating them to a double cold stratification. Here’s how:

Give the seeds 2 to 3 months in the fridge, expose them to warmth for 2 months, then put them back in the refrigerator for 2–3 months. This time, when you bring them out of the fridge, they should start to germinate … and if they don’t? Put them back in the fridge and try again. It once took me 4 alternating cold and warm treatments to get some stubborn trillium seeds to sprout!

100 Seeds Requiring a Cold Treatment

Here are 100 plants that germinate best with a cold treatment (there are thousands of others). Check the seed envelope or the seed supplier’s web site for more information.

  1. Abies (fir)
  2. Acer (maple, most species)
  3. Aconitum (aconite)
  4. Alchemilla (lady’s mantle)
  5. Allium (ornamental onion)
  6. Amelanchier (serviceberry)
  7. Aquilegia (columbine)
  8. Asclepias (milkweed, some species)
  9. Astrantia (masterwort)
  10. Baptisia (false indigo)
  11. Buddleia (butterfly bush)
  12. Caltha (marsh marigold)
  13. Caryopteris (bluebeard)
  14. Cercis canadensis (redbud)
  15. Chelone (turtlehead)
  16. Cimicifuga (bugbane)
  17. Clematis (clematis)
  18. Cornus (dogwood)
  19. Corydalis (fumitory)
  20. Delphinium (delphinium)
  21. Dicentra spectabilis, now Lamprocapnos spectabilis (bleeding heart)
  22. Dictamnus (gas plant)
  23. Dodecatheon (shooting star)
  24. Echinacea (purple coneflower)
  25. Eremurus (foxtail lily)
  26. Eryngium (sea holly)
  27. Eupatorium (Joe Pye weed)
  28. Filipendula (meadowsweet)
  29. Forsythia (forsythia)
  30. Fragaria (strawberry)
  31. Fuchsia (fuchsia)
  32. Gentiana (gentian)
  33. Geranium (perennial geranium, cranesbill)
  34. Goniolimon (German statice)
  35. Helianthemum (rock rose)
  36. Helianthus (perennial sunflower)
  37. Heliopsis (false sunflower)
  38. Helleborus (Christmas rose)
  39. Hemerocallis (daylily)
  40. Heuchera (coral bells)
  41. Hibiscus moscheutos (perennial hibiscus)
  42. Hypericum (St. John’s wort)
  43. Iberis (perennial candytuft)
  44. Ilex* (holly)
  45. Incarvillea (hardy gloxinia)
  46. Iris (iris, many species)
  47. Kirengeshoma (waxbells)
  48. Knautia (knautia)
  49. Lathyrus (perennial sweet pea)
  50. Lavandula (lavender)
  51. Leontopodium (edelweiss)
  52. Lobelia (hardy lobelia)
  53. Lonicera (honeysuckle)
  54. Macleaya (plume poppy)
  55. Magnolia* (magnolia)
  56. Malus (apple, crabapple)
  57. Mazus (creeping mazus)
  58. Mertensia (Virginia bluebells)
  59. Muscari (grape hyacinth)
  60. Myrrhis odorata (sweet cicely)
  61. Nepeta (catmint)
  62. Oenothera (evening Primrose)
  63. Opuntia* (beavertail cactus)
  64. Paeonia* (pivoine)
  65. Penstemon (beard-tongue)
  66. Persicaria (fleeceflower)
  67. Persicaria orientalis, syn. Polygonum orientale (kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate)
  68. Phlox (phlox)
  69. Physalis (Chinese lantern)
  70. Picea (spruce)
  71. Platycodon (balloon flower)
  72. Primula (primrose)
  73. Pulsatilla (pasque flower)
  74. Quercus (red and black oaks)
  75. Ranunculus (buttercup)
  76. Ratibida (prairie coneflower)
  77. Rosa (rose)
  78. Rudbeckia (black-eyed Susan)
  79. Sambucus (elderberry)
  80. Sanguinaria (bloodroot)
  81. Sanguisorba (burnet)
  82. Saponaria (soapwort)
  83. Saxifraga (saxifrage)
  84. Scabiosa (pincushion flower)
  85. Sedum (stonecrop)
  86. Sempervivum (houseleek, hen and chicks)
  87. Sidalcea (prairie mallow)
  88. Staphylea* (bladdernut)
  89. Stokesia (Stokes’ aster)
  90. Syringa (lilac)
  91. Thalictrum (meadow-rue)
  92. Tiarella (foamflower)
  93. Tricyrtis (toad-lily)
  94. Trillium* (trillium)
  95. Trollius (globeflower)
  96. Tsuga (hemlock)
  97. Vernonia (ironweed)
  98. Veronica (speedwell)
  99. Viola (violets)
  100. Vitis (grape, some species)

*Some species in this genus require a double cold stratification.

If in doubt, find out where the plant grows in the wild. If it comes from a cold region and its seeds ripen in the fall, there is a very good chance that its seeds will require a cold treatment to germinate.

Adapted from an article originally published on January 8, 2016.

The National Garden Bureau Celebrates 100 Years


You could have knocked me over with a feather: the National Garden Bureau (NGB) is celebrating its 100thanniversary? I had no idea. Yet, I’ve been using information from the NGB for over 35 years, so, logically, it has to be older than that, right?

I first became aware of the NGB when I joined the Gardener Writers Association (now GardenComm) back in 1984. They were actively helping struggling garden writers, like myself, to find photos, ideas and general gardening information to use in our writing. If I had a question, I could ask them and they’d find an answer. I’ve published articles on their “Year of the” program since long before I started this blog, for example. The program has been running since 1980: 40 years!

And the general gardening public can use their resources too! You can go any time to their New Plants page and learn about the latest plant introductions. They have a blog and a Frequently Asked Questions page. Visit the National Garden Bureau Website: there’s so much there to discover!

Here’s a bit of the NGB’s history.

History of an Institution

A century ago, National Garden Bureau (NGB) was conceived by James Burdett in the wake of World War I. Because of his unique background as both a former journalist and as a seed company’s advertising manager, he appreciated the role of the media in public education. He pioneered the idea of enlisting horticultural writers and broadcasters in the noble effort of mass education to create a population of gardeners. 

The Bureau really came of age during World War II when the American government encouraged homeowners to grow Victory Gardens. By means of posters promoting “Beauty and Abundance in Your Garden” and other promotional materials, NGB promoted gardening on the home front. The postwar years saw an emphasis on community beautification and the Bureau responded with a film, brochures, programs and information sheets to help gardening communicators further this cause among the public. Incorporation as a not-for-profit organization soon followed.

Fast forward to 2020 and much of what Mr. Burdett put in place 100 years ago still remains. 

Today, National Garden Bureau continues to work with horticulture writers and broadcasters, now called garden communicators. The promotion of gardening takes place primarily in the digital realm and in the world of social media, but also at events such as industry trade shows and consumer flower shows. Educating and inspiring home gardeners to indulge in all types of gardening remains a top priority for NGB. NGB members range from seed breeding companies to individual garden book authors and the number of members continues to grow.

2020 marks NGB’s 100th year and it invites the entire industry and gardening community to help it celebrate all year with fun, educational and inspirational activities each month. Look for more information on the National Garden Bureau Website as well as email and social media channels including FacebookInstagramTwitter, and Pinterest.

Kudos to the National Garden Bureau! Long may you live!

Mushrooms Growing in an Orchid Pot


Mushrooms growing in the potting mix at the base of an orchid. Photo:

Question: Small white mushrooms are growing next to my orchid. It finished flowering 2 weeks ago and seemed healthy until today. What should I do? Repot it? Or is the presence of these fungi a sign that the plant is doomed?

Charline Chevalier

Answer: The fungi you see live on decaying wood and other organic particles, not on plants, and are therefore harmless. So, no, your orchid is not in any way doomed nor is it even bothered by them.

The mushrooms we see are just the fruiting body of the fungus. The real fungus is the mycelium, the white filaments that inhabit the potting mix. Photo:

You can cut the “mushrooms” off if they bother you, but that won’t really kill them. They’re only the fruiting body of the fungus, the real fungus being largely composed of mycelium (filaments) largely out of sight in the potting mix.

Time to Repot

The presence of fungi in an orchid pot is, however, a sign that the potting mix is starting to seriously decay and that, if it progresses too far, can negatively affect the future growth of the plant.

It would therefore be wise for you to repot your orchid eventually, perhaps in the spring, replacing the old mix with fresh mix. For that purpose, don’t use ordinary houseplant potting mix, but rather one especially designed for orchids and probably composed of bark, coconut fiber, sphagnum moss, perlite, clay pebbles, charcoal or similar products. 

You can find an orchid mix in any garden center as well as online.

Here’s an article to help you repot your plant: How to Repot an Orchid.

The Two Women Behind the Cottage Garden


Cottage garden at Hestercombe Park, Somerset, a Gertrude Jekyll garden. Photo:

The history of gardens is full of men’s names: André Le Nôtre, creator of the formal French garden, Capability Brown who launched the English landscape style, Frederick Law Olmstead who designed Central Park in New York, Roberto Burle Marx, whose Tropicalissimo still is still making waves, etc. But gardening has always been just as much a woman’s domain as a man’s … and never more so than in the development of the English cottage garden.

Here’s the story of two British women who helped develop the cottage garden as we know it and who thus still influence the design of our own gardens to this very day.

Gertrude Jekyl

Getrude Jekyll. Photo:

If you have a flower garden, it’s probably because of Gertrude Jekyll (1843–1932). Although she trained as an artist, she soon gave up painting to specialize in landscape architecture. As she began her career, the English landscape garden was still very much in vogue: large green parks filled with lawns and trees, a small lake and a meandering stream and often sculptures and pavilions, but with almost no flowers. This type of garden typically surrounded European castles, palaces and large estates and in fact, still does to this day.

Gertrude Jekyll help democratize this style, bringing it closer to the masses, but to it she also added color. She didn’t work on the vast domains of the wealthiest aristocrats, but rather with the burgeoning middle class and their more modest although substantial country homes. Her model? The gardens she saw in her childhood around the small thatched roof houses (cottages) of the British countryside, hence the use of the term cottage garden.

Anne Hathaway’s Cottage in Stratford-upon-Avon, dating to the 15th century, represents what a cottage garden might have looked like. Photo: Richard Peat, Wikimedia Commons

Around these houses were gardens of useful flowering plants—fruit trees, medicinal plants, culinary herbs, etc.—apparently growing without any planning, a real hodgepodge. Thanks to her knowledge of painting, Gertrude Jekyll organized the chaos just a bit, showing the gardeners how to match colors (she was strongly influenced by the color wheel and thus the influence of complementary and analogous colors) and how to mix plants with different flowering periods to ensure non-stop bloom from spring through fall. She was also a true plantswoman, always on the lookout for new, better-performing varieties.

Flower borders at Manor House, Hampton: one of Gertrude Jekyll’s designs.

She took the idea of the flower border, hitherto strictly rectangular, enlarged it, sometimes gave it curves and filled it with flowering plants, including perennials, biennials, bulbs and, of course, roses. The modern English-style flowerbed so many of us have today derives pretty much directly from her cottage garden style.

Don’t get me wrong, though. Gertrude Jekyll was not only person to democratize gardening and to reintroduce the flowers into the landscape. Consider William Robinson, her Irish contemporary whose “England flower garden” greatly influenced flower gardens in general, as well as Edwin Lutyens, who often worked with her. However, I think we can say that Gertrude Jekyll was the main instigator of the perennial border we know today.

It’s important to understand that she was also a garden writer who produced many articles and books for middle-class gardeners. Thus, her influence extended far beyond the 400 gardens that she personally designed or helped design: by the end of her life, the English-style flower border was the dominant style for small gardens worldwide.

Unfortunately, few gardens that Gertrude Jekyll designed herself still exist today and most of those that do are in private hands. Among those you can visit in the United Kingdom and France are:

  • Barrington Court, Somerset;
  • Bois des Moutiers, Normandy, France;
  • Castle Drogo, Devon:
  • Durmast House, Hampshire;
  • Hatchlands Park, Surrey;
  • Hestercombe, Somerset;
  • Heywood Gardens, Ireland;
  • Knightshayes, Devon;
  • Lindisfarne Castle, Northumberland;
  • Manor House, Hampton;
  • Munstead Wood, Surrey;
  • Vann, Surrey.
The Gertrude Jekyll Gardens at Glebe House Museum. Photo:

Although Jekyll designed several gardens in the United States, although from a distance (she never traveled to America), only one still exists, at the Glebe House Museum, Woodbury, Connecticut.

Vita Sackville-West

Vita Sackville-West. Photo:

Vita Sackville-West (1892–1962) was well known in her time as a novelist and poet. Her novels have been translated in many languages and some have been made into TV series. But gardeners best know her today as a garden designer. Although she only created one garden, at Sissinghurst Castle, in collaboration with her husband, Harold Nicolson (1885–1968), a diplomat, author and politician, it’s a garden that still influences us today.

The couple bought the ruined castle near Cranbrook, Kent, England, in 1928. They didn’t have the means to restore the entire castle, but did renovate a few of the outbuildings as well as the Elizabethan tower where Mrs. Nicolson had her office. The couple themselves stayed in the South Cottage.

Rose Garden at Sissinghurst. Photo:

The genius of their garden was that it was divided into “rooms,” like the rooms of a house, and that each garden room was decorated differently, as indeed would be the rooms of a house. It was a revolutionary idea for the time (although not really their idea originally; it was their friend, Lawrence Johnston, designer of another famous British garden, Hidcote Manor, who first developed it).

Previously, when planning a landscape, the same style would have been used for the entire terrain. So, the house would be surrounded by an English-style landscape garden, a French formal garden, an Italian garden, etc. The idea of a garden divided into rooms that could be visited one by one, as you would when you visit a house, represented a profound change in the habit of gardeners, especially since each room could then be done in a completely different style.

The White Garden at Sissinghurst Castle. Photo: Eg Santenzee,

Mr. Nicolson was a master of landscape architecture and drew lines and curves with a draftsman’s precision, using any brick walls that were still standing and hedges where they were not. Each room was so arranged that you couldn’t see the following room before you crossed its threshold. Mrs. Sackville-West was the decorator, adding flowers and foliage to give each room a theme. We owe her a famous definition of an English flower garden: it should have “the strictest formality of design, with the maximum informality in planting.” The contrast of the perfect lines of Sissinghurst Castle’s gardens overridden by exuberant plantings that seem to be threatening to engulf them create much of the charm of this romantic garden.

Again, with Lawrence Johnston’s help, Vita Sackville-West broke new ground by developing monochromatic gardens, where all the flowers were yellow or blue or pink, etc. Some of the gardens have water features or fountains, others statues, others an arbor or trellis, others were based on a specific group of plants, etc. Vita said that her garden was “a cottage garden on the most glorified scale.” I think a lot of people would agree with that.

Bird’s-eye view of part of Sissinghurst Castle from the Elizabethan Tower. Photo:

What is fascinating about Sissinghurst is that the tower that dominates the garden is open to visitors, so you can see the garden from above, as Vita Sackville-West would have seen it from her office. It looks like a castle whose roof has been removed so you can better see the rooms’ contents. Fascinating!

Sissinghurst Castle is now managed by the National Trust and is open daily to visitors. It has become one of the most visited gardens in the world.

And there you go: a very brief sketch of two grandes dames who changed the history of gardens and whose influence is still felt around the world. In fact, your own garden design was probably inspired by their styles, even if you didn’t even know the two women existed before reading this blog.

If ever you want to know more about Gertrude Jekyll or Vita Sackville-West, you’ll find plenty of articles both in print and online. Of particular interest is “Portrait of a Marriage,” a biography of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson written by their son, Nigel. And you can, of course, easily read Vita Sackville-West’s novels, most of which are still in print, or watch two mini-series based on her novels, “The Edwardians” and “All Passion Spent.”

Article originally published on December 21, 2015. 

Basic Houseplant Care: Repotting Versus Potting Up


When it’s time to repot, should you increase the size of the pot? Photo: Hall’s Flower Shop and Garden Center

Repotting. Potting up. They’re the same thing, right?

Not quite. 

Repotting is a more generalized term. It means moving a plant to a new pot. There is no implication of pot size. 

Potting up specifically implies moving the plant into a larger pot. And that’s not always what you want to do.

Pot Size Is Linked to Growth

This young African violet may need to be repotted into a larger pot in only a few months, but once it reaches its full size, it will probably be happy in a 6-inch (15-cm) pot for the rest of its life. Photo: SueLee Charron

Potting up (moving a plant to a larger pot) tends to encourage it to grow faster and become larger. It’s the sort of thing you do to a younger plant, sometimes more than once a year. For example, you’d want to start a stem or leaf cutting in a small pot, but as the cutting grows into a plant, it will need more space, so you’d move it into a larger one, perhaps only a few months later. And likely a larger one again the following year. But as it attains the size you want, you reach a pot where giving it a larger pot is no longer worthwhile. 

Perhaps it has already reached its full size and will grow no further. That would be the case for an African violet or a cyclamen, for example, also many orchids. So, no need to pot up. But you’d still need to change the soil. So, you’d repot into a container of about the same size.

Once a houseplant has reached about the size you want, there is no reason to repot it into a bigger pot. Photo:

Another possibility is one you run into most often with larger houseplants, especially indoor trees. There is practically no limit to how large these will become, but there may be limits on how large you want them to grow. If your dieffenbachia or ficus is already as big as you’d ever want it to be, or nearly so, you wouldn’t want to repot it into a larger pot: that would just encourage it to become even bigger. Instead, you could repot into a pot of the same size and slow it down. 

I have plants that have been in the same size pot for more than twenty years. Two examples are a huge, bulky croton that I certainly don’t want to see grow any larger and a money tree (Pachira aquatica) that is nearly up to the ceiling. Yes, I could replant these giants into bigger pots, then prune them back when they go into a growth spurt, but why bother? Essentially, I’m underpotting them: repotting them into pots smaller than they would like, and that nearly stops their growth cold. Neither of these two plants has grown to any noticeable degree in twenty years. 

Essentially, underpotting is the equivalent of bonsaiing your plants: using pot size to keep their growth to a minimum, as bonsai masters do.

Repotting to Change the Soil

The main reason for repotting a young plant is to give its roots room to grow. But the main reason for repotting a more mature plant is to change the soil. 

You can see minerals salts building up on the side of the pot. Photo:

Over the years, mineral salts tend to build up in potting soil: minerals from tap or spring water, from fertilizer, etc. And as they do, they become toxic. When minerals in the soil around the roots are more concentrated than in the plant itself, water begins flowing out of the plant rather than in, leaving it in a constant state of drought stress. By unpotting the plant, then removing most of the old contaminated soil before repotting into fresh soil, you give the roots a new lease on life.

I find that I can get away with repotting small to medium-size plants (ones I don’t want to see grow, that is) every 2 to 3 years. Big ones in big pots can hold out for 4 to 5 years. Or you can try top-dressing and delay repotting even further. Read the article, If You Can’t Repot, Top-Dress for further information on that technique.

Clean Pot Needed

Clean the pot to remove mineral salt buildup … although cleaning inside the pot is more important than cleaning its outside.. Photo:

Do either thoroughly clean the pot before reusing it (minerals build up on the pot surface as well as in the soil) or, more logically, repot into a new or clean pot. (That way you can take your time and clean the old pot later.) And it can be a pot of exactly the same dimensions.

So, you decide. If you want your plant to grow, pot it up. If you want to limit its growth, yes, do remove the old soil, but repot into the same size pot, thus keeping it underpotted. Simple, isn’t it?

Repotting is best done in early spring, just as the plant begins a new growth cycle. And it can be carried on throughout the spring and summer if that’s more convenient. It’s best not to repot houseplants when their growth is at a standstill, usually from late fall through winter.

Where Does Pepper Come From?


Black pepper (Piper nigrum). Photo:

We use pepper all the time in cooking, adding its pungent flavor to so many of our meals, but have you ever wondered where pepper comes from? 

It’s actually derived from a tiny fruit called a drupe (a drupe is a fruit with only one seed inside) that grows on the pepper plant (Piper nigrum), a climbing plant in the pepper family (Piperaceae). The harvested drupe is called a peppercorn. 

The History of Pepper

Native to Southeast Asia (probably Kerala in southern India), pepper has been grown since time immemorial. 

Trade route from India to Rome. Ill.: Morn, Wikimedia Commons

It was known to the Egyptians, the Greeks (as early as the 4th century BCE) and the Romans as an imported spice, carried via the spice route from the Malabar coast of India through the Red Sea, then to Egypt and, eventually Rome. It was likewise imported into China from at least the 4th century BCE on. It was an expensive luxury item, reserved for the elite.

Pepper harvesting from Le livre des merveilles de Marco Polo (Book of the Marvels of Marco Polo). Ill.: Wikimedia Commons

Even after the fall of the Roman empire, it continued to be traded to the West, where it sold at exorbitant prices. Such was its value that peppercorns were even used as a currency. The main inducement of the Portuguese to find a trade route around the Horn of Africa, accomplished by Vasco da Gama in 1498, was to grab a share of the lucrative pepper trade. By the 17th century, the Dutch and English controlled the spice route and brought in pepper in vast quantities. As a result, the price fell to the point where pepper became the everyday seasoning we know today. 

Today, pepper still accounts for one fifth of the world’s spice trade. Vietnam is the world’s largest producer and exporter of peppercorns, although Indian peppercorns, notably from the region of Kerala, are considered to be of higher quality.

Popular Beliefs

Black peppercorns. Photo:

Despite the popular belief that pepper was once used to mask the flavor of rotting meat, this has no basis in fact, nor is it of any use as a preservative (salt does a much better job of that), another popular but unproven belief. 

Pepper has had medicinal uses over the centuries and was used, among others, for treating toothaches, constipation, insomnia, sunburn and abscesses. Today, according to Wikipedia, it is not considered to be of any medicinal value. (No current medical evidence indicates any of these treatments has any benefit.)

What Gives Pepper Its Bite

The alkaloid piperine is in fact highly toxic, but safe to eat at low doses. Ill.:

The spicy flavor of pepper comes mostly from the alkaloid piperine and its pungency causes pain to the sensitive nerve cells of our tongue. Obviously, it’s a pleasant pain, although some people cannot tolerate the taste of pepper.

Pepper also causes sneezing. This is probably due to piperine irritating the nostrils.

Different Varieties

Black pepper comes from dried immature pepper drupes. Photo:

Western cooks mostly know black pepper. This is produced from berries harvested green (immature). The peppercorns blacken as they dry, with the outer part contracting and wrinkling, a process usually hastened by cooking the drupes briefly in hot water beforehand. They are then ground before use. 

Flavor declines over time, especially when the peppercorns are exposed to open air and to sun. Airtight storage helps preserve the spice’s pungent flavor and, of course, serious cooks grind their own pepper fresh in a pepper mill for optimum flavor.

White peppercorns. Photo:

White pepper is derived from ripe berries, which turn bright red. It comes uniquely from the seed, the flesh of the drupe being removed by various means. The dried seeds are then ground into powder. White pepper is commonly used in Chinese, Thai and Portuguese cuisine and also in white-colored food products, like sauces and mashed potatoes, where the appearance of the black spots left by black pepper would be distracting. It’s very pungent, but lacks the fuller flavor of black pepper.

Green peppercorns. Photo:

Like black pepper, green pepper is made from unripe berries. Different products are added so they keep their green coloration as they dry. They’re also preserved pickled. Green pepper can also be used fresh, but fresh green pepper doesn’t keep well and so is unavailable to Western cooks, although popular in Asia.

Red peppercorns. Photo:

Then there are red peppercorns, derived, as with white pepper, from fully mature berries and preserved in various ways: pickled or dried.

The Other Peppers

Long pepper (Piper longum). Photo:

There are other true peppers (derived from plants in the genus Piper). Best known is long pepper or pipli (Piper longum). Or at least, it was once well known and was originally shipped to Europe along with black pepper (P. nigrum). The Romans, notably, believed the two came from the same plant. It’s a much hotter pepper, but is today rarely used outside of Asia. In this pepper, the individual seeds are embedded in a long catkin (inflorescence), hence the name long pepper. It’s the catkin that is ground up and used in cooking.

Another true pepper used in cooking is cubeb or tailed pepper (P. cubeba), but it is practically unknown outside of the Orient.

Chili peppers come from a totally different plant. Photo: Takeaway, Wikimedia Commons

Hot pepper or chili pepper is derived from a very different plant: Capsicum, in the Solanaceae (tomato family). It picked up the name “pepper” by accident. Native to the New World, it was brought back to Spain and where its burning flavor led to it being mistaken for Piper nigrum. Chili pepper is, however, much more pungent than true pepper.

Four pepper mixes include black, white and green peppercorns from Piper nigrum and pink peppercorns from Schinus terebinthifolius. Photo: Ragesoss, Wikimedia Commons

Then there are pink peppercorns. They’re the fruit of the pepper tree (Schinus spp.) of the Anacardiaceae (cashew family) and do look a lot like true pepper, with a vaguely similar peppery flavor. They can cause severe allergic reactions in people allergic to cashews.

Growing Your Own

Pepper (P. nigrum) can only be grown outdoors in the humid tropics (USDA hardiness zones 10 and above), but anyone can grow it as a houseplant. No, it’s not the easiest plant to grow and it’s slow to produce its first berries (calculate at least 4 years), but it is doable.

Young pepper plant. Photo: Logee’s

You’ll need tropical warmth (never below 60˚F/15˚C and daytime temperatures of 70 °F/20 °C and above are preferable), full sun* and high humidity (over 50% at all times). Since it’s a climbing plant, you’ll also need a trellis. Water thoroughly as soon as the soil begins to dry out and fertilize lightly with the fertilizer of your choice from early spring through late summer.

*Outdoors, pepper plants prefer partial shade.

Strings of insignificant white flowers drip from mature plants in spring and summer and self-pollinate, allowing the berries to form. They do so very slowly, usually taking an entire year to reach full maturity. Then you just have to harvest them at whatever stage you prefer: immature (green) or mature (red). 

Mature pepper plant. Photo: Drew 51,

If you grow black pepper from seed (you’ll need fresh seed; you can’t grow black pepper from dried peppercorns), high temperatures are needed for germination: (75–85°F/24–30°C). Soak the seeds in tepid water overnight before sowing. Germination will take about a month.

If you have access to a plant, you can also produce a black pepper from stem cuttings. They root readily in pot of moist growing mix under high humidity.

Watch out for mealybugs, pretty much the pepper’s only enemy indoors other than dry air. Do note that the tiny beads of sap that form under the leaves and eventually turn black are normal for this plant. This is called guttation.


Every now and then, black pepper plants show up in garden centers during the summer months, but you have to be pretty lucky to find them. Here are a few sources for plants if you can’t locate one locally: 

Tropic of Canada

Top Tropicals

Aromatiques Tropicales

All Rare Herbs