Hidden Hills and the Pepper Tree
BY SYDNEY EASTON
Anyone who’s taken a stroll in Hidden Hills is familiar with the distinctive crunch! of hollow pepper berries under foot. The small, thin leaves that accompany them on the ground that turn brown and litter the streets are also easy to spot. Schinus molle is the scientific name of the California pepper tree, and they’re the tallest growing plant in their family with a range of 25 to 50 feet tall. Sooo… how did they get in Hidden Hills? More specifically, why are they EVERYWHERE and why were they chosen to line the streets over some other type of tree?
Planting pepper trees in Hidden Hills (1950) source: hiddenhillscity.org
While they’re busy stuffing themselves behind your windshield wipers and gracing your hair with unwanted garnish, they also offer incredible coverage. The shady, pleasant sunlight seeping through the pepper trees around the community would be a lot harsher and invasive without the natural umbrella-shaped branches. They’re also evergreen trees, which means they stay green and full all year round. The trade-off of this is that there’s not a specific season pigeonholed for shedding, so we get the molting leaves from January till December.
The precise settling of the pepper tree in California is not specifically known, although its impact on the landscape makes it worth investigating. The California pepper tree is not actually from California. It hails from Peru and was brought over in the early 1800s, but because it was such a beloved staple of the land, it adopted the name we know it as. One source touts the tree as being the ‘palm tree before we had palm trees’ and also offers an interesting anecdote about its arrival in our state:
According to one popular telling, the tree first took root in California around 1825 at Mission San Luis Rey. After staying as a guest at the mission, a wandering sea captain repaid the padres’ hospitality with a handful of seeds, or so the story goes. The head missionary, Father Antonio Peyri, later planted the seeds in the mission garden, where a massive, gnarled specimen still grows today. We can’t know whether the tale is fact or just pure legend, but by the time Californians began investing their crumbling missions with mythic significance in the 1870s, the pepper tree had become as familiar a visual trope as the padres’ sandals and staffs.
The tree became beloved by Californians. They peppered (pun intended) the streets of Pasadena, Hollywood, and Riverside, chosen for it’s remarkable capacity for shading and its striking, year-round beauty. Only when black scale swooped in and threatened the orange orchards and growers were faced with an economic disaster were pepper trees erased from most iconic sidewalks and replaced with palm trees. They also became cumbersome because of their incredible root systems and if they’re not planted in dirt, they’ll uproot concrete when unable to find water.
But Hidden Hills with its dirt sidewalks and dry climate, is still an ideal home for these legendary trees. They grow quickly and are hard to get rid of, so they’re a logical choice to fill a hot, dusty community in need of shade and lots of it. Furthermore, the little berries we find everywhere are not actually related to commercial pepper, they’re poisonous in large quantities but are sometimes blended into grocery store pepper for added flavor. They are also sold separately as ‘pink peppercorns,’ so stop wasting money, go out onto your driveway and stretch out a hand!