Like many things called “California,” California pepper trees aren’t. Schinus molle comes from the inter-Andean valleys of Peru. The tree, a broadleafed evergreen, is distributed all over the world now, used as a landscape and street tree in arid and semiarid areas. Those broad leaves aren’t so broad in appearance; they just aren’t quite conifer needles, but finely divided compound leaves like soft miniature palm fronds. The “peppers” are clusters of pink to red berries that persist long enough to be a decorative asset, and are small enough not to be too much of a mess when they do fall.
The story is that the ones in California originated from a handful of seeds given to Father Antonio Peyri, first superior of Mission San Luis Rey near San Diego, by a sailor who could say only that they were from South America. Father Peyri planted the seeds and they grew, and there’s one still alive at the Mission in an enclosed garden. Whether that’s true or not, pepper trees are strongly associated with the missions.
I’ve always liked elder specimens of this tree, with their gnarled black trunks and graceful feathery leaves. You can see a nice set of examples around the tennis courts at Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Russell Street, though they’re aging past the point of grace in some ways. Part of the problem is pests and disease. Pepper trees are susceptible to root rot, other fungi, phytophthora, and insects including scale and thrips. Severe scale infections have done in a few trees I knew, and others have limped along just looking sickly and feeble for years. I have to admire their toughness in surviving this long, but the sick ones start looking ghastly after a decade or so, poor things.
They are tough in other ways, including drought tolerance. This isn’t always a virtue. Schinus molle, and to an even greater extent its cousin Schinus terebinthifolius, Brazilian pepper tree, are unfortunately invasive—in California, mostly in riparian habitats, but S. terebinthifolius is a villain in other places like Florida. In fact, that one’s on the list of the hundred worst invaders worldwide that was published in the current issue of National Geographic. It’s right up there with Dutch elm disease, zebra mussel, and the Argentine ant.
S. terebinthifolius gets planted here as a substitute for S. molle because it’s a little less susceptible to some of the latter’s pests and diseases. It looks rangier, possibly because most of the ones I meet are younger.
Both the Peruvian and Brazilian pepper trees are sources for the “gourmet” pink peppercorns, hence the Spanish name “falso pimentero.” Beware of scarfing those up, though. They’re in the family Anacardiaceae, along with cashews and sumacs, and some people are wildly allergic to them. I do wonder if sending hordes of ambitious market harvesters into seriously Schinus-infested areas might not be a good solution to the invasion, though.
Now if we could also convince them to go for the kudzu in the Southeast… its roots are much like arrowroot, after all, source of a delicate and useful cooking starch. And somewhere in the archives of Audubon magazine, there’s a recipe for starling gumbo. As for biological controls, I have to wonder if the water hyacinth-choked waterways of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta are really too cold for manatees. Isn’t there a warm-water power-plant outfall or two where they could hang out? Just askin’.
The berries, as well as other plant parts, contain a variety of chemicals (Don’t we all?), some of which are tingly or aromatic enough to have been used for herbal medicines. Various actions are ascribed to these chemicals—most of which exist in more concentrated form in other plants—and the list is confusing and vague enough to persuade me that, as they say, “more research is needed.”
Meanwhile, if you’re going to wildcraft your own spring tonic, please leave the struggling city pepper trees unmolested—they probably contain hazardous levels of assorted exhaust components anyway—and find an invading population along a creek somewhere. Give our green urban neighbors a hand for their grace and toughness, and let their existence be a tonic for your spirit.