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Monday, February 1, 2016

Brazilian Pepper honey, The Bee Folk, Mount Airy, MD

The Brazilian Pepper (Schinus terebinthifolia), also known as Hawaiian Christmas Berry, Florida Holly, Rose Pepper, and Broadleaved Pepper, is a sprawling shrub or small tree in the sumac family, Anacardiaceae, which also includes poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac and poisonwood. As a member of the Schinus genus it is known as a “pepper tree,” although it is not a true pepper. Even so, Schinus molle or the Peruvian Pepper, a close relative of the Brazilian Pepper, is the source of the pink peppercorns that you sometimes see in gourmet pepper mills. The dried berries add a pepper-like taste to food. The Brazilian Pepper is also known as “Hawaiian Christmas Berry” or “Florida Holly” because its red berries mature in December/ January and are sometimes used as Christmas decorations. The “Brazilian” part of its names comes from the fact that it is native to subtropical and tropical South America (i.e. southeastern Brazil, northern Argentina and Paraguay).

Brazilian Pepper berries
The Brazilian Pepper is a dioecious species (i.e. there are both male and female flowers that occur on separate male and female trees) with male flowers lasting one day and female flowers lasting up to a week. Both flower types look the same and are found in abundant clusters. These eventually produce small, red, spherical berries. The shrub/small tree reaches a height of 3-10 meters and has aromatic leaves which when crushed give off a peppery or turpentine-like smell. It is quite a lovely plant to look at and is very popular with bees.

Sometime in the 1840s or 50s the Brazilian Pepper was introduced into the southern U.S. states from South America as an ornamental shrub. The tree adapted very well, actually too well. It is ridiculously hardy and is able to thrive in both dry and wet conditions, can tolerate some salinity and flooding, and, when mature, is also fire-resistant. It is the cockroach of trees- although maybe more attractive. Did I mention that it exudes chemicals in its leaves, flowers and fruit to irritate competing species? It is nearly indestructible and, unfortunately, very invasive. Cold seems to be the only thing that limits it: it is only really happy in hardiness zones 10-12. Interestingly, for about the first 80 years that it was in Florida, it was “controlled” but then in the mid-1920s a horticulture hobbyist gave hundreds of seedlings to friends who planted them in their yards and along city streets. By 1969 it was considered an invasive species of the worst kind, and is now classified as a Category I invasive exotic plant, meaning that it is displacing native species and it should be eradicated whenever possible. It has since taken over large (and ever expanding) areas of Florida, Texas, Arizona, Nevada, Hawaii, Louisiana and California with serious negative impacts on biodiversity. It is causing problems in other places as well: Australia, the Bahamas, and Bermuda, to name a few. In fact, it is such a big problem that the sale, transport or planting of it or its seed is legally prohibited in Florida and Texas (as well as other countries) and the Invasive Species Specialist Group (ISSG) has listed it among the top 100 worst global invasive organisms.
Where the Brazilian Pepper is found in Florida

Unfortunately, it is very difficult to eradicate. This is because if it is cut down it produces basal shoots that produce new trees, it produces lots and lots of seeds that birds (especially migrating robins), mammals (raccoon and possum) and insects (mostly ants) disperse widely, and its seedling survival rate is very high. Mechanical harvesting (down to the roots) and hand-application of herbicides is what is usually needed to get rid of it, with additional follow up treatments if sprouts appear.  Unfortunately, this is all very expensive and difficult to do on a large scale.

Apart from being invasive and having negative impacts on the environment, it also has human health impacts. Its sap can cause skin reactions similar to poison ivy, and eating the berries, which can have a paralyzing effect on some birds, can cause throat irritation, vomiting and gastro-intestinal problems. So, if you grind those lovely pink peppercorns, please be cautious, they are considered to be toxic in large quantities! The Brazilian Pepper is also the source of airborne irritants (especially when in bloom), provoking allergic reactions (e.g. asthma and other respiratory problems) in some. Susceptible people exposed to the tree, even just sitting in its shade, may develop an itching skin rash, face swelling, respiratory problems and other allergy symptoms. Burning the plant makes this worse and being around the smoke (which is described as “noxious”) is like being “maced.” Given how potent it is, it probably is no surprise that the Brazilian Pepper’s leaves, bark, berries, seeds and resin have been used medicinally by indigenous people throughout the tropics for a very long time.

After reading about it, the Brazilian Pepper seems to have only two redeeming qualities: it is an attractive ornamental plant (if you are not allergic to it) and it produces honey. In fact, it is a very efficient producer of nectar (which is by some accounts an unusual fluorescent yellow) and subsequently produces a LOT of honey: approximately 6-8 million pounds in Florida each year. Well, it has one other redeeming quality: given that it typically blooms in late summer into fall (August to November) it is also an important source of nectar for winter honeybee colony maintenance. But that is about it. Everything else about it is pretty bad, at least in areas where it was introduced and is negatively impacting the environment. 

Brazilian Pepper honey
I got my jar of Brazilian Pepper honey online from the Bee Folk. I’m not exactly sure where it originated but my guess is probably Florida since they have the biggest problem with Brazilian Pepper and in the U.S. they produce a lot of its honey. 

According to my readings, Brazilian Pepper honey is by most accounts, too bitter, too peppery, too something else to be table grade, so I think one of the reasons I hadn’t heard of it is that most of it may be sold for commercial use rather than table use. In fact, I’ve read varying accounts of what it tastes like, from sweet potatoes to pepper. This may be partly due to differences in soil and weather conditions, but also due to the honey not being purely from Brazilian Pepper flowers; many apiarists who harvest Brazilian Pepper honey note that while the majority of the honey’s floral source is Brazilian Pepper, other floral sources are involved, and these flavors interact to produce the final flavor. 

I’ve had my honey for a while and it has crystallized, with fairly large granules. It is a mellow orange/brown color. As for flavor, it is not too sweet and has a sweet potato flavor with an overlay of molasses, and then a final, subtle, pepper kick, but definitely more sweet potato than pepper. I didn't find it bitter at all. I'm not sure why it wouldn't be considered for table use, it is quite nice! I think it would be great in baking- and pretty good right out of the jar. 

If you'd like to try some for yourself, you can order some online from the lovely Bee Folk website.

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