Tree that packs a punch

PAUL GAY
Last updated 14:09 05/09/2013
Pepper tree
SUPPLIED
Pepper tree.

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This seedling pepper tree (pictured) was about 10 centimetres tall when this photograph was taken but even at such a young age it exhibited many of the characteristics of an adult tree.

Notice the yellowish-green leaves that are blotched with red and purple - typical of adult foliage.

Exposed to light on the forest fringe or when growing in the open, the leaves can be coloured with a much brighter red.

These days many varieties can be found in garden centres where they are sold as colourful home garden plants.

Since the arrival of the first Maori settlers, pepper tree or horopito as this species is called, has been grown as a medicinal plant. The leaves have a hot peppery taste and when chewed can leave a burning sensation in the mouth. This taste is caused by a compound that has some anti-fungal properties.

European settlers were known to prepare the leaves as a herbal tea which was said to help with stomach complaints.

In some places it was known as the "Maori or Bushman's Painkiller" and was used for stomach ache.

Around 1890 a French nun used pepper tree extracts in a patent medicine that she sold commercially.

The tree can be kept at shrub height but if left to grow naturally can reach a height of about 10 metres. It will grow in a wide range of conditions and often is one of the first to regenerate when a forest has been felled or destroyed in some way.

Botanically this species is known as pseudowintera colorata, referring to the colour of the leaves.

The wood is also reddish and is used for inlay work in furniture, such as table tops.

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- The Southland Times

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