By Carol Wiley, eHow Contributor
Black pepper plants, scientifically known as Piper nigrum, are climbing vines with branches. These woody perennial vines produce fleshy fruits called drupes that contain a single seed. The dried fruits are called peppercorns. Black pepper plants belong to the plant family Piperaceae and are native to tropical forests in regions of the southwest Indian subcontinent.
The pepper plant grows best in warm, wet climates that have a minimum of 100 inches of annual rain and no frosts. Because the plant is a climbing vine, it must have a tree, stake or other structure for support. The pepper vine can grow 12 feet tall, according to the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service. The vines like soil rich in organic matter and do not grow well above an altitude of 3,000 feet. You can grow smaller pepper plants at home, if you have a site with rich soil, partial shade, lots of water and humid conditions.
The pepper plant’s almond- or heart-shaped leaves are about 4 inches long and grow in an alternating arrangement on the stems. Clusters of whitish to yellow-green flowers grow along flowering stalks called spikes that are usually 5 to 6 inches long. The flowers develop into round fruits that are green at first and turn red as they ripen.
The dried peppercorns from the black pepper plant are used to make pepper. Peppercorns can produce green, white or black pepper, depending on when the fruit is harvested and how it is treated after harvest. Black pepper accounts for 20 percent of the world spice trade, according to the Arkansas extension service. The spiciness of black pepper is from the chemical piperine.
Green fruits are used to produce either green or black pepper. For black pepper, the fruits are dried in the sun until they turn black. For green pepper, the peppercorns are subjected to a treatment such as sulfur dioxide, canning or freeze-drying to retain the green color. White pepper is produced from red fruits that have had the outer red skin removed, usually by soaking them in water for about a week, though other methods are also available for removing the outer skin.
Black pepper plants begin to bear fruit when the plants are 2 years old and produce fruit for up to 40 years. Pink peppercorns are not from Piper nigrum but from a species called Schinus molle.