The Word "Pepper" describes many types and varieties in various colors, grades, and qualities. But, at its root, it is the Piper Nigrum plant native to India, belonging to the Piperaceae family.
The plant's vines wrap around trees in the wild, but in commercial farming, it wraps around sturdy stakes, and the small flower on the vines produce rows of berries. Once harvested, they are considered green berries and are ripened until they turn red. They are then dried in the sun until ready and then sifted and sorted, determining their quality; the larger ones are the highest grade. The outer layer of a dried black peppercorn (known as the "pericarp") is dark brown/black and wrinkled. Inside the peppercorn is a large seed that is lighter in color. This is why cracked and ground pepper seems lighter in color than whole peppercorns.
Throughout history, peppers have been named after their place of origin: Tellicherry and Malabar from India, Bellum for Brazil, Sancho from Japan, Lampong for Indonesia, Sichuan from China, Sarawak from Malaysia, Grains of Paradise from Africa, and Phu Quoc for Vietnam.
Peppers vary in color and are found in black, white, green, red, and pink. The black peppercorns are the matured fruit, and the white pepper is similar, but the skins are removed by soaking. Green peppercorns are unripe peppercorns picked at the same stage as the black but not dried and are often pickled in vinegar or brine. Red peppercorns are the unhulled version of the peppercorn, and pink peppercorns are unrelated to black peppercorns coming from the Baies plant in Madagascar.
Black pepper contains 2-4% essential oils, and the compound "piperine" is responsible for its characteristic spicy heat. Differences in place of origin and age lead to variations in pepper flavor.
Besides its use as a seasoning or condiment, it has been valued as a preservative for meats and other perishable foods. It is widely used medicinally in Ayurvedic, Chinese, and Unami medicines and is considered a digestive and tonic.
Pepper was first introduced to the West by Alexander the Great (4th century BC). It was a precious commodity used to pay taxes, tributes, dowries, and rent in ancient times. When Christopher Columbus stumbled upon the Americas, he discovered a completely unrelated species of pepper known as chili peppers (capsicum family) which are native here and introduced them to Europe as a substitute for black pepper due to their pungent flavor without success.
Ayurvedically, pepper is pungent and hot, which is great for Kapha, and can be a bit drying for Vata in excess and overheating for Pitta. The only exception is Pippali, which has the energetics of being sweeter and less intense and acceptable in small amounts for Pitta. The pungent taste of pepper stimulates the heart, improves circulation, destroys mucous, and is a carminative (relieves gas). Its bio-medical actions are: digestive, spleen tonic, burns toxins, detoxicant, diaphoretic, respiratory tonic, decongestant, cardiac stimulant, blood tonic, and vasodilator.