Betel Pepper is a perennial vine related to Black Pepper (Piper Nigrum) and originates in India and Southeast Asia, where it is cultivated for its leaves, these being used to wrap various ingredients into parcels for chewing.
It is a shade-loving vine, preferring filtered sunlight and when young is made up of fleshy, herbaceous stems with aerial roots that arise at nodes along the length, enabling it to climb vertical structures such as tree trunks. Over time, the stem becomes woody, with herbaceous growth being then limited to new growth branching off the main vine, which under ideal conditions can attain a length of up to 15 m (45 ft).
Leaves heart-shaped, 10 to 18 cm (4 to 7 in) long, on top dark glossy green and prominently ribbed, underneath pale green. They are alternately arranged along the stems.
Flowers small and insignificant, white and either female or male on separate plants, held on cylindrical spikes arising at the leaf base. They bloom on and off throughout the year, followed by small, fleshy, green fruit, the fruiting spike somewhat resembling a mulberry.
Betel Pepper leaves are widely used as a wrapping for chewable parcels in India, Southeast Asia and the Pacific. The ingredients wrapped in the leaves varies by region but mostly include thin slivers of Betel Nut (Areca catechu) together with spices. These parcels are then chewed as a stimulant and appetite suppressant.
In India, the leaves are also commonly used for wrapping chewable parcels without Betel Nut, known as 'Sweet Paan', containing ingredients such as Coconut (Cocos nucifera), Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum), Clove (Syzygium aromaticum), raisins, glazed cherries and gulkand, a sweet Indian preserve of rose petals. Sweet Paan is consumed as an after-meal digestive and is common street vendor fare in India.
Betel Pepper leaves yield on steam distillation about 1% of a bright yellow to brown essential oil traded as 'Paan oil' or 'Betel leaf oil'. It has a warm, bitter, biting and unpleasantly sharp taste and due to a high phenol content, of up to 75%, has a sickeningly sweet and tarry aroma. It use is mostly limited to medicines, breath fresheners and oral hygiene products such as mouth-washes. It is also reputedly used as a flavouring in Paan liqueur, a traditional Indian liqueur distilled using betel leaf, nuts, dried fruits and spices.
Betel leaf oil oxidises on contact with iron, becoming discoloured, and must be stored and transported in either glass or stainless steel containers.
Grows naturally in humid subtropical and tropical climates, generally areas with annual lows of 19 to 25 °C, annual highs of 27 to 35 °C, annual rainfall of 1300 to 5000 mm and a dry season of 4 months or less.
Betel Pepper is also cultivated with irrigation and shade in dry areas, such as in Thanjavur, in Tamil Nadu, India which receives only 940 mm annual rainfall and has a dry season lasting up to 7 months.
Only male plants are cultivated, as female plants lack vigour and are susceptible to disease. Fertile seed are therefore not readily available and new plants are usually started from cuttings of six to eight nodes taken from two-year-old plants.
Performs best on free-draining clay-loam, loam and sandy-loam soils enriched with well-rotted manure and adjusted to a moderately acid to neutral pH, generally in the 5.5 to 7.5 range. Planting sites need light shading and staking or trellising is essential for good vine growth and leaf production. Betel Pepper vines have poor tolerance slow-draining, waterlogged and saline-alkaline soils.
Betel Pepper is recorded as a weed in at least one reference publication but not as a serious weed or invasive species. It is only likely to become a serious weed if male and female plants are grown together.
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