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The Black Pepper story - from planting to harvest

Updated: Aug 21, 2021

Once upon a time, Black Pepper was a creeper found in the wilderness that crawled into large trees. Later it became a crop of mass cultivation and farming. Tribals plucked these little green balls from the forest and dried it over rocks and took it to the Princely families in exchange for salt, food and clothes. It was considered as a precious gift that was handed over to other princely delegates and royal visitors. In the Roman Empire Black Pepper was once upon a time considered as an equivalent to a currency or a product that could be bartered for anything, that was how it got its nickname "Black Gold".

A bit of History

It is so common here that while you travel across Kerala, it is not very difficult to find a household who have a peppervine in their backyard. Black Pepper was once a prime commodity during ancient maritime trade on the South West coast of India. There has been a huge demand for the Black Pepper produced in the Districts of Idukki and Wayanad which are certain areas in the high ranges of Western Ghats of South West India. Even though ancient maritime trade was very active with Arabs and Chinese, it got more prominence in Europe when Vasco Da Gama found the sea route to India. He was the person who first shipped Black Pepper to Lisbon. Even though Black Pepper is produced in many parts of the world, the best quality of the Southern India cannot be matched elsewhere.

Though you find Pepper cultivation across the state of Kerala, the Pepper from the high ranges are considered to be the best of class and quality. Earlier these high ranges were dense forest land, lot of families migrated to these hills from the plains, they used to clear the forest and started multi crop farming which included paddy and sugarcane, having said all these, it was black pepper that gave them a financial foundation for these families. There have been many ups and downs for the Pepper in the high ranges of Kerala, including many fungal attacks to the plant, which drastically affected Pepper production as well as their lives. In those difficult times, it was cardamom that helped these farmers of the high ranges of Idukki - Kerala. Today both pepper and cardamom are extensively cultivated in Idukki as well as other high ranges within the Western Ghats.

During early days it was just a wild variety that was available, it was sourced from the forest and a part of the stem was replanted. As years passed these cash crops took new shape discovering new hybrid varieties of Pepper under the research and guidance of Spices Board of India, which is an apex body that promotes the production and marketing of spices from India on a national level. Some of the traditional varieties include "Karimunda", "Uthirankotta", "Arankkulam", "Muda", "Kottanadan", "Neelamundi", "Kalluvally", "Kuthiravally", "Balankotta", and "Marampadathi". Off late "Panniyoor" and different varieties within "Panniyoor" are extensively cultivated. Among these varieties, farmers choose the variety of the Pepper based on the weather and soil conditions of their area, each of them have their own peculiarities and conditions for a better yield.

There is a general misconception that Pepper can be grown only through striking, where the stem or a root of the plant is separated from the mother plant and is given a new favourable soil and climatic condition to grow. Pepper can also be grown by germination of Pepper corns, however the possibilities of germination is relatively very less, probably 10 - 20 percent could be expected on an average course, that too the Peppercorn has to be ideal enough to germinate on its own. Having said that, the best plant and crops come up through the germination process, says Papan, a traditional Pepper farmer.

When is the best time to plant Black Pepper

Njattuvela is a phenomenon named in the local language of Malayalam, it is essentially about the position of the sun. Even though we say the sun rises in the east, it tends to have slight changes in its position. There are 27 Njattuvelas in a year and the best time to plant pepper is during the "Thiruvathira Njattuvela - This period comes between 21st June to 04th of July every year, mostly during the South West monsoon of South West India. It is expected to have torrential showers during this period. The climate has to be very cool and there has to be enough water and moisture in the ear for the plant to grow rapidly. That makes the Thiruvathira Njattuvela important for Pepper planting.

Even though we say monsoon is the best time for planting Pepper, the preliminary preparations take about three months. The pepper stem is not directly cut and planted, three months before the planting date, the stems are plucked and replanted in small plastic pouches that act like grow bags filled with natural soil. Being a creeper, pepper is alway dependent on trees or some kind of mechanism to creap and grow. The tree has to have a a good length of trunk for the creeper to seamlessly grow upwards. The trees generally opted are silver oak, Jack fruit tree, or the cadamba tree.

When the Njattuvela comes these plants in the grow bags have already gained strength to be planted directly at the bottom of the tree. The pepper vine would be planted 2 feet away from the tree, facing towards North with a small pit filled with cow dung and other nutrients that are required for the initial growth of the plant. It will be planted towards North because, when seasons change and when we approach summer, the sun rise from the South East. Harsh direct sunlight and heat can affect the Pepper plant and the crop adversely, that is the reason why we plant pepper plant towards the North side of the tree.

Generally a part of dried coconut leaves would be kept slanting towards the tree as a physical protection for the plant. This is done to avoid the heavy showers that can lead to the survival of the plant. Within a month's time you can see new branches coming out from the Pepper plant, the most healthy branch is tied to the tree so that the creeping process does not take much time.

By end of the year, the plant will almost reach towards the top of the tree. cow dung is the most common and effective nutrient that is applied to catalyze the growth of the plant. It will start yielding crops within a span of 3 years, however to reach a complete growth and a good harvest, it would take around 4 - 5 years.

The Harvest & Sun drying

There is nothing much to do in terms of precautions of care for the plant, just that we need to ensure that the plant is not prone or is under attack of viruses or insects. After the plant has reached a major plant, a thread will start to grow from the branches of the plant. This mostly happens during July to September and Pepper corns start to sprout on those threads. Towards January to March, the threads would have pepper corns on them and would be ready for a harvest.

The whole farm is cleaned and unwanted weeds and other plants are removed, generally some of the corns tend to fall down when it starts to become ripe. Harvesting is generally done where a man would keep a ladder supporting on the tree and will start to pluck the pepper and drop into a bag hung on his back. The same day the threads and the Peppercorns are separated by shredding by foot and pack it into gunny bags.

Green Peppercorns become blank when they are sun dried. Sun drying is the only possible option to process black Pepper. Pepper would be laid on a traditional mat weaved using pineapple tree leaves. Pepper is laid over the mats open in the sun by around morning when the heat of the sun start to gain, by around afternoon, the whole batch is packed while hot. The same process is repeated for three to four days until the Green Pepper becomes Black Pepper. The Black Pepper is then taken through a sieve to remove all of the dust and finally it is repacked all set to take it to the market.

How did you feel reading it, too elaborate about the plant? But I am sure you have got an hang of it, as to how it is grown and finally becomes black in the packet you bought the other day.

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