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Confusing peppers

July 28, 2010

A story goes that Einstein’s assistant asked ol’ Albert to put together the physics test. Albert told his assistant to use the same questions as last year. ¨But professor, the students have already practiced on that test, they know all the questions already!¨. To this Albert Einstein replied: “Yes, but this year the answers are different!”

True or not, this story shows the overwhelming complexity of nature, and man’s struggle to grasp it. Recently I have been busy trying to sort out a minor detail of nature – the long peppers. First an introduction:

To most people there are only two peppers: chili and black pepper. Depending on maturity and preservation techniques, the black pepper plant (Piper nigrum) also produces green pepper, white pepper and red pepper. The chilis (Capsicum spp) belong to the same family as potato and tomato (Solanaceae) and they all come from South America. There are ten species, of which Capsicum annuum provides most of our hot chilis. This species is as diverse as the species ‘apple’, and is divided into five main groups containing almost uncountable varieties.

Black pepper (Piper nigrum, Piperaceae) is a liana native to tropical Asia. During the days of the Roman Empire, there were only two hot spices known in Europe. These were called ‘piper nigrum’ and ‘piper longum’ by the Romans. Please note that these names are vernacular Latin names, not to be confused with the much later scientific names coined in the 18th century.  The Romans imported pepper from India at tremendous costs. The Latin word ‘piper’ is based on ‘pippala’, one of five Sanskrit words for pepper. It has even been proposed that Sanskrit included ‘pippala’ from another unknown Indian language.

Mabberley’s Plant Book (2008) states that there are about 1050 species of the pepper genus (Piper), native both to Asia and America. Here in Thailand we have 38 species. People commonly eat P. nigrum, P. longum, P. betle (betel pepper), P. sarmentosum (an edible leaf) and here in Chiang Mai also the stems of P. interruptum and related species. Another species, P. retrofractum, has both a medicinal and culinary value, and some sources claim this species is the original ‘pippala’. To my understanding, this is the Roman ‘piper longum’, but unfortunately that Roman name has become a scientific name for another pepper, with round fruits resembling black pepper corns (Chaveerach et al. 2006: Ethnobotany of the genus Piper (Piperaceae) in Thailand. Ethnobotany Research and Applications 4:223-231).

The man who applied the Roman name ‘piper longum’ on the ‘wrong’ pepper was Linnaeus (1707-1778). Maybe he just saw the ‘long’ inflorescence of another traded pepper, and then picked a suitable Roman name from literature? He has made other similar mistakes. For instance, the Roman vernacular name ‘boletus’ is a mushroom with the modern scientific name  Amanita caesarea, but Linnaeus used ‘boletus’ as the scientific  name for porcini.

The local Thais may use the word ‘di pri’ (pronounced ‘di pli’ in daily use) for both Piper longum and Piper retrofractum, or they may use other totally different names. Folk names are very fuzzy. Science aims at being exact, which is why a scientific name only refers to one species.  The confusion is caused by people trying to identify a species by translating a vernacular name. You should never do that, because the vernacular names could be applied on many plants. Look at the plant (not the vernacular name) and identify its scientific name using botanical literature. What vernacular name you use after the proper scientific identification is up to you.

As a consequence of people using a dictionary instead of a flora to identify plants, there are thousands of misidentified photographs of tropical plants on internet. Pictures of ‘long pepper’ may show Piper retrofractum labeled as Piper longum. People often copy each other, so mistakes are quickly multiplied on internet. Do not trust blogs (like this one), but check with books or articles which have been written by authorities and then proof-read by other experts.

Why would you care? If you order a Toyota Camry and get a Toyota Corolla, would you care? Google Shorea robusta, the tree under which Lord Buddha was born, and you will find that a gigantic proportion of the photographs on internet show the totally different and unrelated South American ‘cannonball tree’ (Couroupita guianensis). It is like mixing up a Nissan pick-up with a Bentley. The mistake is based on the fact that tour guides point at the tree at a Thai temple and say ‘sala’, and the tourist’s dictionary or Google search tells him that ‘sala’ is Shorea robusta, but it does not tell him that there are many more salas! Even the monks are confused by the vernacular names, distorting their religion to believe that Buddha was born under a South American tree.

Eric Danell

Piper retrofractum from Dokmai Garden. The dense aggregate of fruits looks like a chili. To my understanding, this is what the Romans called ‘piper longum’, so I prefer to call it ‘Long pepper’ in English. If so, what English name should be applied to the pepper carrying the modern scientific name Piper longum? False long pepper? Indian long pepper? Linnaeus’ long pepper? Or shall I just be quiet and eat my spicy food?

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