Cultivation of pepper

Pepper is a tropical plant that grows in hot humid areas with a high rainfall. Locally it can only be grown in the Lowveld and along the northern coastal areas of KwaZulu-Natal.

Botanical characteristics

  • The pepper plant is an evergreen perennial. It attaches itself to trees or trellises by means of aerial roots and is not a parasitic plant.
  • The leaves are oblong, pointed at the tip and arranged alternately.
  • Pepper plants have a shallow root system. There are usually a few major lateral roots that can penetrate the soil to a depth of 2 m.
  • The white flowers are minute and mainly hermaphroditic (both sexes in one flower). The flowers converge in oblong spikes which later form clusters.

A fruiting branch of a pepper plant

Climatic and soil requirements



Spacing between the rows is 3 m and between the plants 2 m, which gives
1 666 plants/ha.


Because pepper is a climbing vine, provision must be made for supports. Treated poles must be used, because the expected lifetime of the plants is 20 years. No shade is needed when planting pepper, because too much shade will result in yield reduction.



Pepper plants have a shallow root system. The use of an organic soil cover is therefore very beneficial. It keeps the soil damp for longer periods and dramatically reduces temperature fluctuations between day and night.


Pruning and maintenance

Pepper plants are pruned to

- get stronger plants

- reduce wild growth of the runners

- keep the plants at a certain height

- stimulate the growth of lateral fruit-bearing branches.

When the plants are not pruned, the secondary runners will show dense growth and suppress the tertiary runners, with a resultant loss in yield. Young plants are only allowed to retain 3 main runners. To strengthen these runners, they must be pruned back to 7 internodes. The long secondary runners hanging from the top must be pruned every year.


The first commercial yield from cuttings is harvested from the third year and the maximum yield from the seventh year. The harvesting time in South Africa is from November to January.

The table shows the harvesting calendar of all the main pepper producing countries.

Harvesting calendar of pepper



Months Jan-Dec (1-12)

















Three types of pepper are available in the trade:
- white pepper
- black pepper
- preserved green pepper (in brine).

Preparation of white pepper

Preparation of black pepper


The main problem with the cultivation of pepper is root rot, caused by Phytophthora. Symptoms of root rot are wilting of the leaves and discoloration of the stem bark. Phytophthora is a soil fungus which flourishes in wet and poorly-drained soils. It will attack the roots, leaves, branches and the berries of the plant. Affected plants usually die off within 10 days.


Pepper is subject to root damage caused by several plant parasitic nematodes. The most important of these are the burrowing nematode (Radopholus similis), the root-knot nematode (Meloidogyne sp.), the spiral nematode (Helicotylenchus sp.), the ring and the dagger nematode.

Nematode control should start in the nursery and cuttings should only be rooted and transplanted into nematode-free soil.


Worldwide about 75 % of black pepper is used domestically and 25 % of white pepper. The meat-processing industry uses about 35 to 40 % of the world production. Dried seeds of pepper contain 2 % volatile oil, which is used in sausages and table sauces.


The degree of dryness may not exceed 12 to 15 % moisture. Imported pepper is subject to strict standards (see table).

Requirements for imported pepper


White pepper 

Black pepper

Nonvolatile ether extract 

6,5 % 

6,5 %

Ash content 

2,5 % 

7,6 %

Foreign ingredients 




For further information contact the
ARC-Institute for Tropical and Subtropical Crops
Private Bag X11208, Nelspruit 1200
Tel (013) 753 2071
Fax (013) 752 3854

This publication is available on the web at:


    Compiled by Directorate Communication,
    Department of Agriculture in cooperation with
    ARC-Institute for Tropical and Subtropical Crops

    Printed and published by Department of Agriculture
    and obtainable from Resource Centre, Directorate Communication,
    Private Bag X144, Pretoria 0001, South Africa