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Thursday, January 31, 2013



     At the very outset of my attempt to retrace my walk across the San Fernando Valley along Ventura Boulevard, there is a freeway entrance sign that marks the western boundary of the City of Los Angeles. To make the location more interesting, a great California pepper tree marks the location where Calabasas Road meets Valley Circle Boulevard.
     A sign by the pepper trees (Schinus Molle) for sale in Treeland Nursery says "plant away from paving or sewers." Lots of Valley residents whose sidewalks have been upended or who have paid horrific sewer line bills, might wish they had seen this warning. But, despite the bully-some nature and messiness of our California peppers, I love them. When I was a boy, the great trunks and willow-looking branches of pepper trees were all over the Valley, especially at the edge of citrus orchards. On dry and very hot summer days, pepper trees always provided welcomed shade and an exotic aroma that seems to whisper, "You're in California!"

 A great California pepper tree greets arrivals from the north in Woodland Hills

       The Schinus Molle isn't a true pepper tree, that is if one demands a relationship to the black and red peppers that come from India. Never the less, they have an important connection of world history. Spanish explorers, while excited about cities of gold and great mines of gleaming silver, had an even bigger quest. That was for the valuable spices of India! (Nearly all of us know that it was the search for the Indies that got the unfortunate island Caribs referred to as "Indians.")
       Our California pepper trees aren't originally from California. They were initially cultivated by the Inca peoples of Peru. However, the dried red exterior of their berries can indeed be used as a pepper-like spice. And, when ground and added to East Indian pepper or cayenne they help to stretch their weight.
      Spanish Franciscan monks brought Inca pepper seeds to California as part of their medicine cabinets. In small amounts, not much more than enough to color boiling water, the shells of California pepper seeds/corns made a valued tea used to curb anxieties. Perhaps the holy Friars became anxious when they discovered that California pepper cords tended to poison pigs, ducks and chickens.

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