Botanical Name: Xylopia aethiopica [Dun.] A. Rich
Common Names: African Grains of Selim, Grains of Selim, Kani pepper, Moor pepper, Senegal pepper
The term ‘pepper’ is today synonymous with ‘black pepper’, or Piper nigrum, a member of the family Piperaceae. Very few people know of the existence of two other plants that were popularly used as spices, and as a substitute for black pepper, in the 14th and 15th centuries AD. Negro pepper or Xylopia aethiopica is one of them.
Negro pepper was used as a substitute for black pepper in Europe. But when regular imports of black pepper began from India in the 16th century, the use of Negro pepper declined drastically and, subsequently, it was only seen during war times or when there was a shortage in black pepper supply. The last time its presence was detected was a little after World War II. It is, now, commonly, not available outside of the countries where it’s grown.
Though named Negro pepper, the plant does not belong to the typical pepper-producing families, such as Piperaceae and Solanaceae, but to Annonaceae, the Custard Apple family.
The genus Xylopia derives its name from the Greek xylon pikron, meaning ‘bitter wood’, while the specific name aethiopica refers to the area of origin of the tree, though most of Negro pepper’s cultivation is now restricted to Ghana.
Two species of Xylopia — X. aethiopica and X. striata — grow in tropical Africa and are used in local cooking as well as a traditional medicine. Another species, X. aromatica (Burro pepper), is found in South America and finds similar use among Brazilian Indians.
Habitat, Description and Use
Native to the low-land rainforests and the moist, fringe forests in the Savannah zones of Africa, Xylopia is an evergreen, aromatic tree that grows up to 20m high. The fruits resemble twisted, rather small bean pods. The contours of the seeds are visible from the outside of the fruit, which are cylindrical and dark brown in colour, extend 2.5cm to 5cm in length and are almost 4mm to 6mm thick. Each pod contains five to eight kidney shaped seeds that are approximately 5mm in length. The hull is aromatic but not the seed itself.
The spice is aromatic, quite pungent and slightly bitter, comparable to a mixture of Cubeb pepper and nutmeg. The Negro pepper is quite often smoked during the drying process, which imparts an attractive smoky-spicy flavour to it. The plant parts used for aromatic content are primarily the fruits and the bark, though occasionally the leaves too are used.
Xylopia fruit extracts have been found to have a high concentration of copper, manganese and zinc.
Medicinally, Xylopia finds use as a carminative, cough remedy, and postpartum tonic and lactation aid. Its extract has been used as a cure for stomach aches, bronchitis, biliousness and dysentery, besides being used as a poultice for headaches and neuralgia.
Xylopia fruit extracts have effective anti-microbial action against gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria.
The chemical constituents of the Xylopia fruit include essential oils (2 per cent to 4.5 per cent) consisting, among others, β-pinene, 1,8-cineol, α terpineol, terpinene-4-ol, paradol and bisabolene.
Chemical analysis has also revealed the existence of linalool (E) β–ocimene, α-farnesene, α-pinere, myrtenol and β–phillandrene. Traces of vanillin and 3 ethyphenol were also detected.
The essential oils of the stem bark (0.85 per cent) and the leaves (0.5 per cent) of X. aromatica reveal that the bark oil consists mainly of α-pinene, transpinocarveol, verbenone and myrtenol. The leaf oil, on the other hand, consists of spathulenol, cryptone, β-caryophyllene and limonene.
Among the non-volatile compounds are tetracyclic diterpenes of the kaurane type. Kauranes and structurally similar kolavanes, and trachylobanes also appear in extracts from the bark.
- A summarised description of the flavour of Grains of Paradise from “What Peppercorns Only Dream of Being” New York Times, May 3, 2000, by Ammanda Hesser
- Grains of Paradise – Iwu, M. W., A. R. Duncan, and C.O. Okunja 1999. New antimicrobials of plant origin p. 457 – 462. In: J. Janick (ed), Perspectives on new crops and new uses. ASHS Press, Alexandria, VA
- Grains of Paradise from Nagness et at 1971. Food and feed crops of the United States
- The Book of Spices, F. Rosengarten Jr. 1969, Livingston Publishing Co, Penn., USA