Black pepper ( Piper nigrum ), the true pepper, is economically the most important species of the pantropical pepper family (Piperaceae). It is native to Java, whence it was introduced into other tropical countries. A perennial climbing shrub, it bears pea-sized fruits, the peppercorns of commerce. Black pepper, sold whole or ground, is the dried whole fruit; white pepper, made by removing the dark outer hull, has a milder and less biting flavor. Pepper owes its pungency to a derivative of pyridine. In the earliest days of commerce black pepper was a great luxury and a staple article of trade between India and Europe. So high was its price that a few pounds made a royal gift, and the great demand was one of the causes of the search for a sea route to the East. Pepper was valued by Hippocrates for its medicinal properties as a heart and kidney stimulant, and it is still used as a powder or tincture, as a local irritant or liniment, or as a gargle. Many other species of Piper are used medicinally throughout the tropics. The leaves of the betel pepper ( P. betle ) of the Indomalaysian region are a principal ingredient of the masticatory betel.
Cubeb is the name for the berry and for the oil obtained from the unripe berry of the East Indian climbing shrub P. cubeba. The dried fruits are sometimes used as a condiment or are ground and smoked in cigarette form as a catarrh remedy. The oil is used medicinally and also in soap manufacture. The masticated roots of kava, P. methysticum, widely grown in its native Pacific islands, are made into a beverage called kavakava, which contains soporific alkaloids. It is an integral part of religious and social life there. A preparation of kava for commerce, also called kavakava, is sold widely as an herbal remedy for anxiety and insomnia.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.