It is only in the most recent centuries that human beings have travelled long and far across vast oceans. Before then, we remained close to our homes, exploring the flora and fauna the bioregion had to offer us as food, clothing, tools, and shelter. Humans would venture slowly from their homes in search of goods they could not find nearby. They traded shells, textiles, seeds, and animals and met with potential mates at seasonal gatherings. The spice trade between Asia, Middle East, North Africa, and Europe began with Arab traders nearly 4,000 years ago, strategically situated between two major continents. The ancient movement of spices ranged from as far away as Malay, Moluccas, and Sri Lanka all the way to the Northern most reaches of Rome. In 80 BCE, Alexandria, Egypt became the center hub for spice trading through the fall of the Roman Empire in the fourth century CE. The spice market once again was held in Arabia through the Middle Ages. Then, relocated a third time to Venice and Genoa at the turn of the tenth century CE, where it was held through the Renaissance. Spices were, and still are, currency. Now, spices are labeled by modern economics as commodities.
Spices, or aromatic plants, those containing Essential Oils, also known as Volatile Oils, are what give plants their aroma. These scents are used to attract pollinators and deter herbivores and disease. Medicinally, this category of flavor, Spice, not spicy as in, it burns my mouth and makes my eyes water pungency, but as in the colors and scents that grace your spice cabinet. Spices dissipate gas in the upper and lower digestive tract, benefit and clear the lungs from excessive mucus, increase digestive juices, and kill bacteria and fungi, essentially preserving the quality of the food while helping the nutrients to assimilate more efficiently. In aromatherapy, Essential Oils are generally used to lighten the mood, relieve depression, effect the mood and thought patterns, and dissipate negative energy while protecting the human using the medicine.
This ability to preserve and protect food is one of the reasons spices where so valued, as well as for their exotic and enticing scent. Spices tend to thrive around the equatorial belt and into Mediterranean climates, where the bioregions are hotter and, in some cases, more humid. In cooler, more temperate climates, foods would be preserved by smoking, drying, and storing in cool, underground caves or cellars. All peoples fermented or salted foods for preservation.
Spices, in the macro view of human history, moved people around the globe. Dissipating and assimilating, driving people to each other. Spices brought Western Europeans to the Americas and have shaped cultural traditions. Clove and Cinnamon for the Winter Holidays, Cardamom in Turkish coffee, Caraway in Jewish Rye, Patchouli scented silks, Ginger Bread Cookies, and Salt and Pepper on red calico tablecloths. Spices have integrated humanity, under a common love for flavor and aroma.
One of the most common spices is Black Pepper, Piper nigrum. Native to India, this perennial, woody vine, fills the understory, preferring partial sun and abundant water. Cultivated by ground layer, it is the perfect low hanging vine in a perennial polyculture tropical Food Forest. Black Pepper is grown along with Vanilla and Patchouli as a ground cover, on Cinnamon, Cacao, and Coffee trees, surrounded by a canopy of Rambutan, Breadfruit, and Jackfruit! In gardening, it is an effective insecticidespray.
With a long medicinal use historically, it is noted in Greek herbals as early as the 5th century BCE and has been an integral part of Ayurvedic medicine for over 5,000 years. The fruit is hot and slightly bitter. It is used to clear toxins from the gut, is antimicrobial, rejuvenates the eyes by stimulating circulation, eliminates parasites, is a diuretic, refreshes the lungs, clears congestion, and relieves stomach pain and spasm. A therapeutic nervine, expectorant, and analgesic indicated for weak digestion, poor appetite, colic, poor circulation with cold hands and feet, arthritis, and amenorrhea. It is an excellent herb to add as a small part to any formula to potentiate other herbs and effectively absorb vital nutrients.
It is contraindicated for sensitive people who are easily overly stimulated and who have temperamental stomachs as it may irritate gastric mucosa. Also contraindicated for those who are hyper active and/or tend to run very hot and dry. Consumer must be aware that even small doses will increase absorption and expedite the reaction of medication, which can be very dangerous depending on the intent of the pharmaceutical.
In Thailand, the herbalists only use the riper red peppercorns and prefer the seeds which have passed though the digestive tract of wild birds.
It is interesting to consider the practice of using a predigested seed medicinally found in animal dung. Who first decided to pick through the bird poop in search of seeds and second, why did they decide to eat those seeds? It tells of a fascinating and deeply connected relationship between humans, animals, and plants. Animals are the bridge between us and the plant and fungi kingdom, as they speak a language that is most similar to all. Humans struggle to hear the words of the plants, whereas the animals of sea, water, and sky can hear plant’s echoes through the pads of their feet, with the broad spectrum of their eyes, and with the scent on the breeze. The plants tell the animals stories relating to their bioregion. In many ways animals rely on plants more than we do. We use plants for our clothing, furnishings, and shelters. Animals only slightly manipulate the plant matter. I am watching a pair of tiny banana quicks make a nest as I write, diligently collecting plant material for near a week. Animals live among the trees and roots and in the leaves and branches. Their relationship is more exposed, intimate, and in many ways plants and animals share the same fate, their threads more tightly woven together on the web of life. Perhaps then, the Thai healers had patients suffering from the ailments healed by black pepper, and the birds, in response to human need, pooped nearby, alerting the healers to their own personal black gold contained. All herbalists have a relationship with excrement, as it tells a detailed story of a person’s life, but it takes a special kind of healer to discover this potent medicine.
In plant spirit medicine, black peppercorns placed on your altar, the oil anointing your candles, or a few seeds offered to the fire will open you up to exploration and disperse your energies in positive directions.
Black Pepper Essential Oil, in aroma therapeutic practices includes, dilution in coconut oil as indicated as a spot treatment or oil pull fortoothaches, gargled for laryngitis, inhaled as a steam or with an atomizer for chronicbronchitis, and as a perfume or body oil for sexual debility along with Ginger and Vetiver. A pain-relieving analgesic, it makes a lovely muscle rub.