Sunday 24 September 2017

Ornamental peppertree brings a welcome dash of colour

Peppertree
Peppertree

Gerry Daly

The New Zealand peppertree is a most unusual shrub but is becoming better known.

It is unusual because it shows hardly any green colour in its leaves. The leaves are usually pale orange yellow with a red rim around the edge and often a shading of wine red into the leaf from the edge. The undersides of the leaves are usually grey-white, often with a bluish tinge.

The apparent lack of green colour means the green chlorophyll pigment is masked by its yellow and red pigments.

Chlorophyll must be present in larger quantity than it appears to be, or the plant would not be able to grow. And this might be linked to the fact that it is slow-growing, taking about 10 years to reach one metre or so.

The colourful foliage of the peppertree, or mountain pepper, as it is also known, is admired by some people as colourful and decorative, and disliked by others who think the shrub simply looks ill and is struggling.

While there are colourful forms of many common garden plants, this is normal colouring for the peppertree and very ornamental in winter.

Peppertree, or mountain pepper, has the New Zealand Maori name of horopito and the leaves were used as a folk remedy for stomach ailments.

A bio-active extract is currently used as a treatment for candida infection. The leaves, if chewed, even a tiny nibble, are peppery hot to taste, leaving a slight numbness after the burning sensation abates.

But the peppertree is not related to black or white pepper, or the chilli pepper either; it has its own distinctive pepper-hot taste and it is used as a condiment in its native land.

The botanical name of the peppertree is Pseudowintera colorata. The first part of the name means false wintera, meaning different, which refers to its relative, the Winter's bark of South America, Drimys winteri.

The winter part of both botanical names and Winter's bark, comes from John Wynter, an English sea-captain of the 16th Century who famously prevented his crew from suffering scurvy by having them drink an infusion of the bark of the drimys tree to get some Vitamin C, which was not known at the time.

The tree he used is a much bigger tree than its New Zealand cousin and it is grown in some gardens here, especially in collections of Southern Hemisphere plants. It forms an upright bushy tree to 12 metres or so with large clusters of white flowers. Presumably, the bark would dry out and keep better than fruit on a sea voyage.

There is another related shrub or small tree, the Tasmanian peppertree or tasmannia. Unlike the yellow leaves of its New Zealand cousin, it has dark evergreen, narrow leaves. It has decorative red stems and starry pale yellow flowers, and is available in garden centres.

All of these peppertrees are easy to grow in any good, fertile soil that drains well in winter. They prefer acidic soil conditions, but can cope with soil of neutral pH with mulching. These are hardy enough in mild areas but can suffer frost damage inland in a cold winter.

The peppertree is unusual, but very pretty.

Sunday Independent

Editors Choice

Also in Life