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A California pepper tree is a fast-growing, broadleaf evergreen. Its gently drooping branches and compound leaves give it an appearance similar to the weeping willow and provide excellent shade. Landscapers often choose this tree because of its rapid growth and year-round foliage.
A mature California pepper tree typically reaches 30–40 feet (about 9–12 m) in height, with branches reaching a similar spread. The largest, heaviest branches often droop. Its compound leaves measure 6-12 inches (about 15–30 cm) and are composed of as many as 40 alternating leaflets. The bark initially is smooth and gray, but it exfoliates with age. Flaking strips of bark give the tree a rough texture that might turn reddish.
In maturity, this tree is tolerant of drought and can survive in arid conditions. If left for long periods with insufficient water, however, the branches will become hollow and brittle. Watering might be required in dry climates to prevent its branches from snapping off and to keep the tree looking its best, and saplings will need watering until they can become established.
Rapid growth makes the tree attractive to gardeners and landscapers who are not willing to wait decades for mature trees, but it also adds considerably to the required maintenance. Regular pruning might be required, especially to clear away low-hanging branches if the tree is growing near a walkway or being used for shade. Berries falling from the tree can make a mess, especially when the trees grow near driveways or curbside parking.
Despite the name, the California pepper tree is not native to California. It is native to the deserts of Peru but has since been cultivated in warm regions around the world. This tree can be found throughout South America, Central America, the Caribbean, the southern United States, Hawaii, Australia and Africa.
California pepper trees also are planted for spice production. They do not, however, produce true peppercorns, which come from the unrelated Piper nigrum, the vine that produces black pepper. Instead, the California pepper tree produces fruits popularly referred to as pink peppercorns, which do have a scent similar to black pepper.
In some regions, the California pepper tree has become a problem and is seen by some people as a weed. The tree can be invasive and take over the local environment. In places such as South Africa, Australia, Florida and Hawaii, the tree has encroached on local wildlife, competing for resources and threatening native plant species.
We had a pepper tree in the backyard when I was growing up. It was a nice tree, but it made a heck of a mess with the berries. I remember dad was always making me prune the thing, but it didn't seem to help.
They smelled quite nice though. So many of my childhood memories have a bit of pepper smell around them.
We never tried to eat the berries, but I kind of wish we had now. You'd probably need to dry them and then grind them up, like real pepper corns, I'd imagine.
Pepper trees are a lovely option for your garden if you want a fast growing, good looking tree. They can even be of some use to people who like growing their own food, as you can substitute the berries for pepper.
But, you should seriously look at whether this tree is considered a pest in your area before planting another one. There are quite a few places where pepper trees are taking over from native species. Everyone should be work together to try and reduce this kind of encroachment.
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