California Pepper

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By Richard Flowers, ACCNP-Green Thumb Nursery-Ventura

I remember as a child where I grew up my family had a tree that resembled a Willow. With its weeping form, delicate looking appearance, and graceful/lacy character. This tree had movement when the branches swayed in the breeze. Together with the delicate light green leaves and the weeping branches it made a curtain of dense foliage with pink to red berries that hung down like grapes. This tree was called California Pepper. This fast growing, tough, durable tree never got water, in fact it survived on rain water alone. I used to play under the dense shade it provided, it kept me cool during the summer. I loved to gaze at the old California Pepper with its thick branches, gnarled, peeling bark, its enormous spread of 30 feet and the height the same. Luckily it was way in the back of the property in a neglected area away form the house, walls, streets, pipes, and sidewalks. There was nothing else growing under the dense canopy. It was a grand old tree, beautiful, majestic, and picturesque, and its no wonder why the California Pepper is ubiquitous with planting in Southern California. So without further a-dew, I want to broaden your knowledge about one of the most popular trees for landscaping – the California Pepper.

In the professional community, California Pepper is called by its botanical name of Schinus molle and is pronounced as: SKY-nus MOL-ley. The name for the genus (Schinus) comes from the Greek word ‘schinos’, a name for the related Mastic Tree (Pistacia lentiscus) which it resembles. The species name (molle) is interpreted as being from the Latin word ‘molle’, or ’mulli meaning “soft” As it does have a soft and lacy appearance. Most home gardeners use different common names to identify the plant such as California Pepper, American Pepper, Pepper Tree, False Pepper, Peruvian Peppertree, Peruvian Mastic, Molle Del Peru. In this text I will use the name of California Pepper. California Pepper belongs to the family of plants called Anacardiacea and is related to such plants as the Sumac, Mango, Pistachio, Cashew, Poison Oak, California natives: Laurel Sumac, and Sugar Bush. Most plants in this family including the California Pepper have a sap that is poisonous and many times you can get a skin reaction.

An effective way to help identifying these plants in this family is that they all have red stems attached to the leaves . The foliage is bright green and comprised of many narrow leaflets. These aromatic, fine textured leaves are compound, meaning each leaf has 15-41 narrow leaflets arising off a main leaf stem. The crushed leaves release a distinct aroma close to that of commercial black pepper. The abundant flowers are small and yellow which occur in spring and are not showy, some say they have a slight fragrance. These summer flowers have five petals and occur in dense panicles or spikes meaning that their is one flower that branches off on short stems to another flower. After the flowers are borne the fruits emerge in fall to winter which are pink to red in color. The Dried fruit  are called “pink peppercorns” because they have a peppery flavor. These pink/red berries are used and sold as pink peppercorns in culinary realms and often blended with commercial pepper. The leaves or berries can be used as an antiseptic/antibacterial agent in traditional medicine and as a textile dye.(1) see below for notation). The berries also attract birds and butterflies.

California Pepper is grown for its beauty, durability and adaptable to a wide range of climates. Its an iconic symbol of what a California landscape is like and has a long history in California gardens. California Pepper arrived in the state with the San Diego missionaries in the 1830’s and planted by Father Antonio Peyri at Mission San Luis Rey de Francia in Oceanside, California. Despite its name, California Pepper is not native to California instead it is native to Peru at elevations up to around 12,000 feet in the direr/arid Southern Andes Mountains from south to Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. In its native habitat it is also seen along water courses near 2,500 ft. Because it is found so commonly throughout the state, planted in gardens and also reseeded everywhere and this has led many to believe it is native but instead it is called a native transplant thus California Pepper has become adapted to subtropical, Mediterranean, and semi arid climates as well. To some people, it is considered invasive though not at a level in California that has mandated any control measures or regulation. California Pepper is widely distributed through out the world.

The California Pepper is a medium to big tree meaning that it grows to a height and width of 25’- 40’ and sometimes much larger. In fact there are reports of one reaching over 70 feet tall and is listed in the Register Of Big Trees. California Pepper usually comes in two forms, a multi trunk or low branched form or a standard (tree form). Multi-trunked forms appear to grow a smaller size but it is not always the case, while a standard form appears to grow taller. Often you see California Pepper growing as a rounded multi trunk or low branched tree with multiple low branches arising from the base like fingers on a hand. Many gardeners choose this form because it is more picturesque and natural looking. This form is especially nice when landscape lighting is beamed to show off the intrinsic cluster of branches and limbs especially at night. Other times you may see them grown in a fashion where you can walk under it and the branches are set high a number of feet above the ground, this form is known as a single trunk or standard and invokes a more formal “ cleaner” appearance. Both forms are beautiful in there own way.

As the tree ages, the trunk will become gnarled and fabulously interesting. On older trees, the bark is often attractively rough, twisted, fissured, dark gray to brown in color. California Pepper provides you a rounded, lacy, spreading, and strong pendulous habit. To maintain the weeping form it is advised to prune off suckers as needed at the base. Prune the canopy base rigorously to compensate for strong weeping habit. It is effective when used as a weeping accent evergreen tree for large areas that evokes a graceful Spanish or hacienda architecture. California Pepper can be used as a wind break or even privacy. As an alternative to growing as a tree, it can be grown and trained as a hedge by planting small plants and pruning them hedge-like, thus providing a graceful and lacy hedge. It is best to keep it away from buildings, walkways, streets, and plumbing as the roots are large and aggressive.

California Pepper prefers a well drained soil but can tolerate sand, clay or loam, and sometimes in alkaline clay soil with a heavily irrigated lawn causes foliar iron chlorosis (yellow leaves) occurs. It tolerates moderate salt spray, soil salinity, smog, and is deer resistant. Trees do produce abundant pollen which, when airborne, can cause problems with those that suffer from allergies so these issues should all be considered before planting this tree in an urban environment.  

Despite the disadvantages and short comings, a love- hate relationship has developed with the California Pepper. It likes to be in full sun all day long. Once established, it is drought resistant meaning it tolerates very low water. It is able to withstand a wide range of climates from desert heat to sea coast conditions. In low deserts, however irrigation is essential. It is hardy to around 10°F but if temperatures fall much below 20 the foliage freezes then turns brown but new green growth quickly appears in the spring. California Pepper tolerates many adverse conditions such as poor soil, wind, moderate frosts, and is very adaptable. The oils in the leaf litter deter understory plant growth, making it difficult to grow other plants beneath the canopy. The roots are greedy, and not ideal for small spaces, and provides lots of leaf litter even though it is still a striking and handsome tree and works excellent as a specimen in the right location. It is still widely planted.

I encourage you to check out the wonderful California Peppers at your favorite Green Thumb Nursery, please call ahead to ensure product availability.

The above statements, practices, recommendations have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to treat, cure or prevent any disease, illness or condition. User assumes any or all risks.

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