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Pepper Family

Piper aduncum L., a shrub in the Piperaceae. Note the swollen nodes, the asymmetrical leaf bases (subtle in this specimen), and the “rat-tail” inflorescences. Un arbusto. Note los nodos hinchados, la base asimétrica de las hojas (poco evidente en este ejemplo), y las inflorescencias que parecen colas de ratas.

Description: a family of shrubs, herbs, and epiphytes in this region, with two lianas (Piper multiplinervium and Sarcorhachis naranjoana). The leaves are simple, alternate, entire, and frequently asymmetrical at the base, with sheathing petiole bases (rare outside of the monocots) and no stipules. The nodes of the stem are conspicuously jointed. Piperaceae have a strong and characteristic odor, somewhere between pepper and wintergreen. The plants have sympodial growth (the main lateral meristem terminates at a node and is replaced by another meristem, often giving the twig a zigzag appearance). The Piperaceae inflorescence is absolutely unmistakable: a long spike of much reduced flowers (often compared to a rat’s tail), produced from the leaf axil.

Economic uses: Piper nigrum, native to the Kerala region of India, produces black pepper. Kava kava (Piper methysticum) is used as a stimulant in the South Pacific, and can be found in health food stores in the U.S.

Descripción: Una familia de arbustos, hierbas, y epífitas en este sector, con dos bejucos (Piper multiplinervium y Sarcorhachis naranjoana). Las hojas son simples, alternas, enteras, y frecuentemente con la base asimétrica. Carecen de estípulas. La base de los pecíolos es envolvente (una característica poco común fuera de las monocotiledóneas). Los nudos son conspicuos. Las Piperaceas tienen un olor fuerte y característico, similar a la pimienta y la menta. El crecimiento de las ramas es simpodial; es decir, cada rama resulta de una serie de brotes en los cuales cada pedazo de la rama se desarrolla del botón axilar del brote anterior. Como resultado, este crecimiento le da a la rama una apariencia de zigzag. La inflorescencia de la Piperaceas es completamente inconfundible: una espiga larga de flores muy reducidas, como la cola de una rata, que nace de la axila de la hoja.

Usos económicos: Piper nigrum, del estado de Kerala in India, fuente de la pimienta. Kava kava (Piper methysticum) es un estimulante de las islas del sur del mar Pacífico, que a veces se encuentra en tiendas de medicina natural.

Genera/species at La Selva: 3/60: Peperomia (17; mainly epiphytic/ la mayoría epifíticas), Piper (42; shrubs and herbs/ arbustos y árboles), Sarcorhachis (1; liana/ bejuco).

FIELD MARKS – alternate, simple leaves (that often appear opposite), asymmetrical leaf bases, spicy odor (anise) common, sheathing petioles, swollen nodes, stems often have zig-zag appearance, rat-tail inflorescence.

Piper – the most common genus, inflorescence a single spike, pollinated by insects and bats, mostly shrubs.

Piper sancti-felicis bearing rat-tail inflorescences.
Close-up of Piper sancti-felicis inflorescence. Each little dot is a flower.
Piper sancti-felicis stem with swollen nodes and sheathing petioles.
Piper sancti-felicis with asymmetrical leaf bases, sheathing petiole, zig-zag stem, and an inflorescence resembling a birthday candle.
Piper peltatum inflorescence.
Piper peltatum has peltate leaves and candellabra-like inflorescences.
Piper cenocladium grows as an understory shrub. The swollen nodes and zig-zag stem are characteristic of the genus Piper.
Hollow petioles of Piper coenocladium house symbiotic Pheidole ants.
Exposing the hollow petiole of a Piper coenocladium leaf.
Piper with zig-zag stems, sheathing petioles, and asymmetrical leaf bases.
Piper with zig-zag stems and rat-tail inflorescence.
Epiphytic Peperomia obtusifolia.
Epiphytic Peperomia with characteristic rat-tail inforescences.
Peperomia rotundifolia sports fingernail –sized leaves.


  • Dyer, Lee A., Craig D. Dodson, John Beihoffer, and Deborah K. Letourneau. 2001. Trade-offs in ant herbivore defenses in Piper cenocladum: Ant mutualists versus plant secondary metabolites. Journal of Chemical Ecology 27: 581-92.
  • Greig, N. 1993. Predispersal seed predation on five Piper species in tropical rainforest. Oecologia 93: 412-20.
  • Lopez, J. E., and C. Vaughan. 2004. Observations on the role of frugivorous bats as seed dispersers in Costa Rican secondary humid forests. Acta Chiropterologica 6 (2004): 111-19.
  • Lee Dyer’s book: Dyer, L.A., and Palmer, A.D.N. 2004. Piper: a model genus for studies of phytochemistry, ecology, and evolution. Springer Verlag.

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