- Author: Stan Zervas
My front yard is dominated by a very old California Pepper Tree, Schinus molle, often called the Peruvian Pepper Tree as it is not native to California, but rather, native to the southern Andes mountains from Peru south to Bolivia also Chile and Argentina. The Pepper Tree was introduced to California by Spanish Missionaries in 1830.
In Trees in Paradise, the Botanical Conquest of California, author Jared Farmer explains that California's savannah and chaparral puzzled American settlers coming from the east. They missed the shade trees and abundant firewood of the east and set out to “improve” their new home by introducing drought-tolerant trees from elsewhere in the world that would grow quickly. Eucalyptus, Palm, Pepper tree, Magnolias for street trees and citrus, olives for commercial food production.
Eucalyptus arrived soon after the gold rush with booms in planting in the 1870s and again in 1907-1913. By the 1880s municipalities thought it stylish to plant rows of eucalyptus and pepper tree along the wide avenues throughout southern California.
Pepper trees are common front yard trees in the old part of Benicia.
Historic photos and neighborhood legend indicate that my tree was planted around 1914. It was probably the recommended tree for the homeowner of the time, much like it appears crepe myrtle is the recommended tree these days.
The attributes that made it a good choice when it was planted also create a gardening challenge today. Pepper trees have vigorous surface roots and thrive with no irrigation once established. The foliage and fruit contain a terpene that inhibits the germination and growth of other plants. So my front yard has filtered sun, extreme root competition and allelopathy from the leaf litter. Previous residents had only a sparse Bermuda grass lawn growing under the tree. I can see why. Currently, I have amended the clay soil and have planted a variety of native and non-native plants that can handle difficult situations. I expect some will not make it but hope in time I can come up with a few plants that I like that will survive. The trunk is also home to a large staghorn fern inherited from a great aunt. Several gardening guides recommend that if you have a large pepper tree, just make a nice patio beneath it and grow plants in containers. I think that's my plan B.
In a prior life in a former house on country property, my husband and I planted pepper trees but they succumbed to an infestation. I wasn't an MG then, so didn't know where to look for info to identify the culprit.
I have not planted natives under the tree yet, but I'm hoping to try some. All I can say is that of the non-natives that I have planted the ones that are supposed to be vigorous or even invasive have grown moderately. My guess is that competition from the tree is significant, so try something tough and fast growing.