Rose pepper is a South American species part of the Anacardiaceae family, which also includes the cashew. Rose pepper is a plant native to tropical and subtropical areas in northern Argentina, Paraguay and south-eastern Brazil.
The rose pepper is also known as the Brazilian peppertree and is a medium-sized plant, looking either as a small tree or a large shrub. It can reach a maximum height of about 10 m and its root system doesn't go deep into the ground. The branches have various shapes and can grow either upright, lean towards the ground or similar to a vine. Sometimes, a single plant can include all three types of branches. It is able to survive in all types of conditions, from swamps where it is an almost aquatic species to the dry environment of sand dunes.
Rose pepper has alternate leaves, pinnately compound, with a length between 10 and 22 cm. Each leaf of rose pepper consists of 5 to 15 leaflets, between 3 and 6 cm long and 2 to 3.5 cm wide. They have visible yellow veins, a rounded tip and jagged edges. In most cases, the leaf rachis is winged. It has small white flowers located on axillary clusters and a plant either has male or female flowers (dioecious species). Fruits are small drupes, not larger than 5 cm, but grow in very large clusters, with hundreds of peppers.
The rose pepper is considered very useful for the restoration of destroyed ecosystems, in particular gallery forests. It also provides food to wild animals and is planted along hedges and on the Atlantic coast of Brazil, for dune stabilization. Rose pepper doesn't have many industrial uses but the wood can be burned for fuel, turned into charcoal or used to craft posts. The resin is also harvested.
In Europe, the fruits are very popular as an alternative to the unrelated black pepper (Piper nigrum). It is also confused in Europe with another type of condiment also known as red peppercorn. These have the same size as black pepper and are often mixed with it and white pepper to create a more attractive product. However, these red peppers are produced by a different plant, the Peruvian pepper tree (Schinus molle).
Fruit, leaves, bark, seeds, resin.
The rose pepper has many medicinal uses and is also good for other purposes. It can be a quality fodder for goats but some parts of the plant are toxic, so it must be used with care. Pressing the rose pepper seeds produces an essential oil that is a natural pesticide against Musca Domestica, the ubiquitous house fly. Modern researchers are also testing the antiseptic effects of the rose pepper plant.
All around its native range, the rose pepper is very important in the local traditional medicine. The tribesmen of the area have been using every part of the species in their tropical medicine traditions, including the fruit, bark, leaves, balsam, resin and seeds. It has been discovered near the idols in the temples of Amerindians in Chile, which proves the plant has been used for a very long time and it had a religious significance as well.
Natives of Central and South America have discovered many beneficial effects of rose pepper. It is known to be a digestive tonic, diuretic, wound healer, astringent, antibacterial, tonic and antiviral. All parts of the rose pepper plant are considered to be an effective antiseptic in Peru, as well as a treatment for fractures, while the sap is employed as a diuretic and weak laxative. The balsam (oleoresin) can be ingested as a purgative and a cure for rheumatism or applied externally in order to stop bleeding, speed up the healing of wounds and against toothaches. It is also a popular remedy in South Africa, where the tea treats common cold while decoctions prepared from the leaves are inhaled to treat depression, cold, high blood pressure and erratic heartbeat. Tea is also brewed in the Brazilian Amazon basin from both the bark and the leaves, where it is known as an antidepressant, laxative and stimulant. Decoctions are used in Argentina to treat urinary problems, menstrual issues and breathing difficulty.
Today, the rose pepper is still popular in herbal medicine. It is especially used in tropical areas against a wide range of conditions such as genital problems, open wounds, menstrual issues, bronchitis, gingivitis, gonorrhea, gout, tuberculosis, ulcers, urethritis, eye infections, rheumatism, sores, swellings, venereal diseases and warts. In Brazil it is considered effective against irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure and other heart diseases, the bark and leaves being used to treat them. It is also believed to be a cure for infections of any kind, tumours, inflammation and bleeding caused by menstrual issues. Tinctures from the bark or other extracts can be ingested for their astringent, tonic and stimulant properties or applied externally to treat gout, rheumatism and syphilis.
Modern scientists have also investigated the plant as a possible cure for MRSA, with promising results. It seems to interfere with the bacteria in two separate ways, by preventing it to communicate and inhibiting the production of a toxin used to decompose human tissues.
In those areas of South America where frost is not an issue, the rose pepper is widely cultivated as an ornamental species and also for its fruit and foliage. Tetragonisca angustula, a species of bee that is an important producer of honey, relies on the melliferous flowers for their nectar.
The pink fruits are dried and then sold as a spice, even if they are not actually pepper or related to the real black pepper. Sometimes, they are mixed with the so-called red peppercorns, which are the fruits of Peruvian pepper (Schinus molle). Not only is the aspect very similar to pepper, but the taste as well. Commercially, they are usually found as dried pink spices. Less commonly, they are found pickled in a brine solution, which gives them a green color.
Rose pepper is quite common in the USA, where it is found in the states of Louisiana, Florida, California, Hawaii, Arizona, Nevada and Texas. It has become widespread and an invasive species in some parts of the world, where it was initially introduced as an ornamental plant. These are usually subtropical areas with at least moderate amounts of rainfall, including the United States, all of Australia, New Zealand, Southern China, the Bahamas, Bermuda, Cuba, Fiji, Guam, Hawaii, Malta, the Marshall Islands, Mauritius, New Caledonia, Norfolk Island, Puerto Rico and South Africa. Rose pepper is also cultivated in California or Israel but it did not become invasive in these drier areas.
The reason why the species proved hard to contain and eliminate is that cutting the main trunk will result in basal shoots. Since the tree produces a lot of fruits that are consumed by wildlife, birds and ants can disperse them over extended ranges. However, the same properties that make the tree invasive are extremely useful when it is used in its native range to restore destroyed woods.
Modern phytochemical tests have found a large number of compounds in rose pepper: generous quantities of essential oil, flavonoids, tannins, alkaloids, steroidal saponins, sterols and terpenes. The essential oil can be found in the fruits, leaves and bark. More than 50 different chemical compounds have been detected in the oil so far, such as triterpenes and sesquiterpenes with bioactive effects. The highest concentration of essential oil is in the fruits, of about 5%, with 2% in the leaves.