Schinus molle

Botany Photo of the Day work-learn student Tamara Bonnemaison writes today’s entry:

As a child, I spent many winters traveling through central Mexico with my parents, who were enamoured with the stark landscapes of the southern Chihuahuan Desert. One of our favourite camping spots, deep in the state of San Luis Potosi, was in an abandoned homestead, complete with the crumbling walls of an old adobe house and a thriving coral made of planted nopal (likely Opuntia ficus-indica). Next to the ruins of the house was one singular, fragrant tree, the only plant larger than a shrub as far as the eye could see. This tree, which the locals called a pirul, was a young child’s dream. It’s long, drooping branches made a green and cool oasis around the tree’s trunk, and the pirul’s fruit were nearly always to be found; clusters of tiny, glistening, pink and purple pearls that I used as “food” for my dolls drooped plentifully from the tree’s branches. When crushed, the fruit and leaves left a strong, peppery scent that has stayed with me into my adult life. Seeing Gabriella Ruellan’s (aka Gabriella F. Ruellan@Flickr) images of Schinus molle brought back a flood of wonderful memories of my childhood, and allowed me to finally connect the magical tree of my memory to its botanical name. Thanks Gabriella for sharing these photos.

Unknown to my childhood self, Schinus molle, or Peruvian pepper tree, is not native to central Mexico, and instead comes from the Peruvian Andes and northern South America. The seeds can be used as a replacement for the true pink peppercorns of the Piperaceae (the pepper family). During the 16th century, explorers and traders were quick to recognize the value of Schinus molle as a spice and rapidly spread the species around the globe. This hardy, drought-tolerant and beautiful species has become naturalized and even invasive in many parts of the world. It has become a serious problem in warm, arid areas including parts of South Africa, Australia, and the USA. It saddens me to think that it is inadvisable to plant Peruvian pepper tree anywhere outside of its native range.

Gabriella’s photo shows bore holes in the fruit of Schinus molle. In the comments along with her image posting on Flickr, Gabriella hypothesizes that insects eating the seeds help keep this species in check in its native range. Peruvian pepper tree has been used and investigated for its insecticidal and insect repellant qualities, but it seems the insects that damaged the seeds in Gabriella’s photo have not read those studies! While trying to investigate the insect that caused the damage shown in the photo, I learned that the peppertree psyllid, Calophya rubra, feeds on the tree’s leaves, causing pits and leaf curls. Also, the omnivorous looper caterpillar, Sabulodes aegrotata and many scales are considered Peruvian pepper tree pests. It is not altogether surprising that I could not find an example of a borer that favours Schinus molle, given that I am entirely unfamiliar with the insects of Latin America. If any BPotD readers can shed some light on this subject, please share!

Schinus molle
Schinus molle

7 responses to “Schinus molle”

  1. Daniel Mosquin

    The following comment was sent along by Silvina M.:
    “I follow you page with interest. But I suspect that the photograph you published as Schinus molle, it is not correct. Perhaps, as I can see, it is Schinus areira L.”
    My comment in reply: recent taxonomic assertions have dropped Schinus areira in favour of Schinus molle var. areira. That said, this may indeed be that particular variety.

  2. Marilyn Brown

    My grandparents had a huge pepper tree at their home in Oakland, CA, 70 years ago. Whether it was Peruvian, I don’t know, but the pleasure it gave to my cousins and me remains a favorite memory. The drooping boughs gave us a spacious, fragrant, private place to play, invent things, and feed pepper-berries to dolls. Thanks, Tamara !

  3. kathryn corbett

    What a nostalgia-inducing tree! It was common where I lived in southern Mexico for many years, and a Berkeley friend has one in her front yard. Oh, envy! My fantasy-dream is to have a large one in a dry garden, where it lends shade to a long wooden table with chairs. There we all sit drinking wine and enjoying the laden table for hours on end. Won’t happen–I settled where it is perpetually cool and wet.
    I have heard that the fruit, when used as a condiment, severely worsens hemorrhoids.

  4. Sue Webster

    Nostalgia is the word! Relations of ours who had a farm near Castlemaine, Victoria, Australia, had at least one. There was a swing made from an old tyre hanging from it and now whenever I see what we call a peppercorn tree, it is like seeing a member of the family.

  5. David Tarrant

    Yes indeed a great entry from Tamara.
    This tree is also widespread around the altiplano of Mexico, particularly here in Guanajuato.
    Interesting, at higher dry and cooler elevations of 2000 meters plus they seem to produce way more berries.
    I like using them in Holiday Wreaths
    However just one word of warning, the berries are poisonous to poultry and pigs, and can be quite dangerous if ingested by young children.
    That said, visiting old Haciendas around San Miguel Allende, the ancient artistic curving trunks and light foliage of Schinus molle enhances a magical and romantic feeling to the old ruins.

  6. Pat

    I have not been able to find a picture of the exit holes but given that this is Schinus areira or S. molle var. areira they may well be made by Megastigma transvaalensis, a seed-parasitic chalcid wasp of the Torymidae. Introduced from South Africa where it parasitises Rhus spp. it has successfully shifted to other hosts, invaded several other countries and is found in Schinus in Brazil and Argentina.
    Lithraeus atronotatus was the only other fruit-feeding insect I could find for Schinus.

  7. Pat

    Ooops, that should have been Megastigmus not Megastigma, I was obviously thinking of Boronia.

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