The Biscayne Times

Mar 20th
A Tasty and Zesty Foe PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jeff Shimonski   
April 2011

Brazilian pepper may be an invasive species, but it has its uses in the kitchen

Your_Garden_04_11I always look for good opportunities to come out of something that is perhaps not so good. The productive use of an invasive plant that is difficult to control presents just such an opportunity. In this case, the plant is Schinus terebinthifolius, more commonly known as Brazilian pepper, Granos de Pimienta Rosa, or Pimiento de Brazil. It is these common names that should give us a hint about its potential upside.

Brazilian pepper is in the plant family Anacardiaceae. This family includes such toxic plants as native poison ivy and poisonwood. Other well-known plants in this family are sumac (used as a spice in Middle Eastern cuisine), mango (no explanation needed), pistachio, hog plum (ciruela), and the cashew (marañón). As many of you already know, all of these plants, including the edible ones, are toxic to certain individuals via physical contact with (or ingestion of) the unripened fruit, its skin, or the plant’s sap. Anyone who has lived in South Florida even briefly knows someone who cannot handle or eat mangos without breaking out in a rash. Even the cashews that many of us enjoy have to be properly roasted to destroy the toxic seed coat. (This must be done outdoors because the smoke alone can cause severe reactions in some people.)

As an invasive plant, Brazilian pepper is particularly noxious. Introduced in the 1800s as a commercial ornamental plant, it has invaded huge areas in Central and South Florida. It forms dense impenetrable thickets of tangled wood stems that in natural areas completely shade out and displace native vegetation.

When I first started working at Parrot Jungle, in the 1970s, we once used a very large crane to assist us in pruning our banyan tree. When we finished with the banyan tree three days later, the crane was relocated to an area of the park that had been invaded by Brazilian pepper.

The plants had grown very large, shading out everything around them. (Brazilian pepper is thought to produce certain chemicals that act as allelopathic agents, which suppress other plants’ growth and this may explain why, when we see extensive stands of this plant, it seems to be the only plant species around.) We attached cables to the base of these trees and pulled them directly out of the ground with the crane. It was an amazing sight -- roots 50 or 60 feet away were being yanked right out of the ground, throwing up soil and rocks all around. It looked like a horror movie.

No surprise that this species is prohibited by law from sale, transport, or planting in our state, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Noxious Weed List. It is classified as a Category I pest by The Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council. That also includes the seed, which is readily eaten and dispersed by birds and mammals.

Now, for the silver lining. How many of you use mixed pepper when you season your food? Look up pink peppercorns on the Internet and you’ll find an assortment of quotes touting their virtues: “Pink peppercorns have a delicate, fragrant, fruity, floral, sweet and/or spicy flavor.”

“They are reminiscent of a mild citrus zest and sweet berries.”

“They go especially well in fruit sauces (pairs well with strawberries), vinaigrettes, and desserts (makes a great ice cream paired with chocolate cake).”

“It is quite the gourmet item in French cooking, and pink peppercorns also add a rich rose color to cuisine.”

It all sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? And do you know where pink peppercorns come from? Our locally invasive plant, Brazilian pepper.

The Food and Drug Administration banned the use of pink peppercorns in the 1980s because of the possibility of toxic effects, but has since rescinded its ban. Today pink peppercorns can be found in commercial containers sold to restaurants, and in the spice section of your local supermarket. (I’ve even seen the scientific name, Schinus terebinthifolius, used on some of the ingredient labels.)

Currently there is research being done locally in South Florida to find varieties of Brazilian pepper that have fewer irritants or allergens in the peppercorns. I also recently read that dried pink peppercorns generally have only a very weak irritating action, if any.

So just because a plant is in a family of other plants with known toxic effects, we should not succumb to knee-jerk reactions and dismiss everything in the family without trying it first. I’ve learned not to eat peanuts, hot peppers, or too much wasabi, and to eat certain other foods in moderation lest I get sick from them.

Did you know the tomato and eggplant are in the Solanaceae family, which is the same family as belladonna (deadly nightshade), the infamous Angel’s Trumpet, and tobacco, with its toxic nicotine? Let us keep things in perspective.


Jeff Shimonski is an ISA-certified municipal arborist, director of horticulture at Jungle Island, and principal of Tropical Designs of Florida. Contact him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


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