California Pepper Trees – An Icon of “Old California”
Pepper trees are one of the more common yard trees in the Crescenta Valley, and have some history behind them as well. They’re easy to identify with their dense evergreen and lacy leaves, drooping boughs and clusters of pink and red aromatic “peppers.” The berries or seeds are not true seasoning “pepper” (which comes from a vine native to India), but are sometimes blended with commercial pepper or sold as “pink peppercorn.” They are iconic of Old California and the missions, and we see them as street trees in many old photos of the Los Angeles area. They were commonly planted yard trees in the Crescenta Valley, and in Southern California as a whole, from the late 1800s into the ’20s. They are hardy and long-lived, and so tend to dominate the yards of older homes locally.
The so-called California pepper tree has a dynamic history, starting with the fact that it isn’t Californian at all. Its true name is Peruvian pepper, and it’s native to the northern parts of South America, where it was used by the Incas to make a drink, and for a variety of medicinal uses. It, and its cousin the Brazilian pepper tree, has since spread worldwide, even to the point of gaining a reputation as an invasive species.
According to legend it first showed up in California in 1825 when a sea captain gave seeds to the padres at Mission San Luis Rey, which they planted. That supposed first pepper tree is still alive at the mission in Oceanside, and its seeds were planted at many of the other missions by the fathers. As Americans from the east coast flooded into California in the late 1800s, the missions were romanticized, and the pepper tree became as much an icon of “Old California” as the mission bells. Transplanted Eastern gardeners across the state planted the pepper tree to lend a romantic air to their yards, and the trees began a long run as favored street trees on newly built Los Angeles streets. Old postcards sent from Los Angeles show tunnel-like views of streets overhung with massive pepper trees.
But just after the turn of the century, a parasitic insect called black scale invaded the pepper tree stock in California. It wasn’t fatal to the trees, but it spread quickly to the hundreds of square miles of citrus orchards and threatened their health. With citrus an important cash crop, most growing cities scaled back on their love affair with the pepper tree and, in fact, took out many established mature trees. Many city planners were glad to see them go, as they were far from ideal for street trees – they were messy and occasionally lifted sidewalks and streets. It was during this period – the teens and the ’20s – that the palm tree began to supplant the pepper tree as the symbol of Southern California. However, the pepper tree was still well loved and has continued to be planted as a shade tree and for ornamental uses.
I have several pepper trees in my own yard – three that I planted in the past few decades, and a giant that grew from a pepper tree stump soon after we moved there in the late ’70s. I love them for their year-round shade and bird attraction qualities, and even more for their historical significance. But they are not without their detractors. I’ll guess my immediate neighbors are not fans of them. My trees grow quickly and overhang their yards, dropping a seemingly endless quantity of small, hard-to-rake-up leaves. I rarely recommend them to others who don’t share my romanticized love of the history of California. They require a lot of maintenance in the form of raking and pruning. But on the practical plus side, they are fire-resistant and are drought tolerant. Wildlife loves them, and my pepper trees are teaming with birds, squirrels and bees. The California pepper tree, while not practical for all gardens, still has its place, particularly for those who see it as an icon of California’s history. It’s a living symbol of “Old California.”