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 and is made up of fleshy, herbaceous stems with aerial roots arising at nodes along the length, enabling it to climb vertical structures such as tree trunks. Over time, the stem becomes woody, with herbaceous growth 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).
The leaves are 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.
The flowers are small and insignificant, white and with female and male flowers borne on separate plants. They are held in cylindrical spikes arising at the leaf base and bloom on and off throughout the year. They are followed by small, fleshy green fruit tightly packed on a fruiting spike that somewhat resembles 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) and spices. These parcels are then chewed as a stimulant or appetite suppressant.
In India, the leaves are also used for wrapping chewable parcels without Betel Nut. Known as 'Sweet Paan', they contain ingredients such as Coconut (Cocos nucifera), Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum), Clove (Syzygium aromaticum), raisins, glazed cherries and 'Gulkand', a sweet Indian preserve made from rose petals. Sweet Paan is consumed as an after-meal digestive and is common street-vendor fare in India.
Street-vendor in India preparing Sweet Paan for sale
The leaves on steam distillation yield about 1% of a bright yellow to light brown essential oil traded as 'Paan oil' or 'Betel leaf oil'. It has a warm, biting and unpleasantly sharp, bitter taste and due to a high phenol content of up to 75%, has a sickeningly sweet and tarry aroma. Its 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 from 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 that lasts 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, with new plants 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 to 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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