Szechuan Pepper Info – Learn How To Grow Szechuan Peppers

By: Mary H. Dyer, Credentialed Garden Writer

Szechuan pepper plants (Zanthoxylum simulans), sometimes known as Chinese peppers, are graceful, spreading trees that reach mature heights of 13 to 17 feet (4-5 m.). Szechuan pepper plants provide year-round ornamental value, beginning with lush blooms in late spring and early summer. The flowers are followed by berries that turn bright red in early autumn. The gnarly branches, contorted shape, and woody spines add interest throughout the winter.

Are you interested in raising your own Szechuan pepper? Growing this sturdy plant isn’t difficult for gardeners in USDA plant hardiness zones 6 through 9. Read on and learn how to grow Szechuan peppers.

Szechuan Pepper Info

Where do Szechuan peppers come from? This fascinating tree hales from the Szechuan region of China. Szechuan pepper plants are actually more closely related to citrus trees than to familiar chili peppers or peppercorns. The peppers, which show up when the trees are two to three years old, aren’t widely used in the United States. However, they are a staple in Asia, where they are used to add spice to a variety of dishes.

According to the Encyclopedia of Herbs and Spices by P.N. Ravindran, the tiny seedpods have a unique flavor and aroma that isn’t pungent like familiar red or black peppercorns. Most cooks prefer to toast and crush the pods before adding them to food.

How to Grow Szechuan Peppers

Szechuan pepper plants, generally planted in spring or fall, thrive in flower beds or large containers.

Plant Szechuan peppers in nearly any type of well-drained soil. A handful of all-purpose fertilizer added to the soil at planting time will provided extra nutrition that gets the plant off to a good start.

Szechuan pepper plants tolerate full sun or partial shade, however, afternoon shade is beneficial in hotter climates.

Water as necessary to keep the soil moist but not soggy. Water is important during extended dry periods, especially for plants grown in pots.

Szechuan pepper plants generally don’t require much pruning. Trim them to enhance the shape and remove dead or damaged growth, but be careful not to prune new growth, as this is where new peppers develop.

Szechuan pepper plants are generally unaffected by pests and disease.

Harvest Szechuan pepper plants in autumn. Put a tarp under the tree to catch the pods, then shake the branches. Wear gloves to protect your skin from the spikes when working with Szechuan pepper plants.

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Szechuan Pepper Plants: Where Do Szechuan Peppers Come From - garden

Zanthoxylum simulans. The Szechuan pepper tree has many monikers, a sure sign of an ethnobotanical treasure. Known as toothache tree or prickly ash in the United States, huajiao in China, sansho in Japan, and tuba in Indonesia, the taxonomy of this genus of more than 250 species can be confusing, which is why it is useful to rely on Latin nomenclature. These Szechuan pepper trees are Zanthoxylum simulans. Our Japanese pepper trees are a different species, Zanthoxylum piperitum. We find no discernible difference in the berries.

And such berries! The edible portion of the fruit is the pericarp, or the husk surrounding the seed. Contained within its papery segments is hydroxy alpha sanshool, the chemical that delivers the famous tingling/numbing sensation prevalent in so many Szechuan dishes. This component is layered in a lemon base alongside a peppery heat. The two sensations, tingling and heat, are known as ma and la. Ma predominates and this is why Szechuan peppers are frequently used in tandem with hot chili peppers.

Berries ripen and turn a bright red in early autumn. An easy way to separate the husk from the unused seed is to place the berries between cloth and smash with a rolling pin. Toast the husks briefly right before using them, then grind roughly and transform your culinary experience. Try Szechuan peppers in lemon bars, noodles, eggs, fish, stirfry, miso soup, or almost anything you can think of, and don't forget cocktails. The possibilities are infinite.

Grow in full sun or part shade in hot summer areas. Established trees hardy to minus 10 degrees F, Zones 6 through 9. Fairly easy to grow, no pernicious pests or diseases. Deciduous. Szechuan pepper tree seems to be fairly self-fertile, certainly much more so than our sansho trees, which are strictly dioecious. A greater harvest is had by more than one tree, but not always necessary for berry production. Female plants can self-pollenize so this may explain single trees bearing fruit. Our plants are not sexed, so we cannot guarantee any single plant will produce berries. Leaves are pinnately compound, leathery, not used in cooking. A multi-trunk shrub that wears a mighty armor of thorns to 20 feet in colder climates, taller in warmer areas.

Growing Sichuan peppers in the Waikato

Many gardeners and food growers enjoy tending to unusual plants. They like the challenge and don't seem to mind uncertain outcomes.

In many cases, figuring out how to nurture, then harvest, process and cook unusual crops are much-anticipated milestones in a gardener's life.

Needless to say, when it all works according to plan, the results are naturally immensely satisfying.

So it goes for Lesley Fitzgerald and Jenny Oliphant, self-confessed "people who enjoy their tucker" and growers of the Sichuan pepper tree, Zanthoxylum simulans.

At their Pokaiwhenua Tree Farm in the Waikato, near Putaruru, they grow two of the plants, raised from seed. They were not entirely out on a limb though, having already grown a cousin of it, the Japan pepper (Zanthoxylum piperitum). There are several related peppers from the Zanthoxylum group.

"We were curious about another species," they explain. "We had also read and were inspired by Fuchsia Dunlop's (memoir) Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper."

At this point, gardeners everywhere must be nodding their heads in agreement with this logic, because, of course reading a cracker story or anecdote about a particular plant is enough reason to try to grow one, and Fuchsia Dunlop, an English writer and cook who specialises in Chinese cuisine, is particularly effusive about this one.

"That incomparable tongue-numbing sensation of Sichuan pepper, a fizzing that starts stealthily and rises to a mouth-streaming, breathtaking crescendo that can last for twenty minutes, before it slowly, gradually dies away. It is stronger even than I expected, and I laugh in surprise," she wrote in a chapter entitled Guilt and Pepper. "For years I have dreamt of tasting Sichuan pepper on the tree, and here I am, in Qingxi itself, my lips singing."

Jenny and Lesley are likely two of the extremely few people in New Zealand who can say they have also tasted Sichuan pepper like this. "There is nothing like the zingy, tingling, spicy flavour," they confirm.

Incidentally, Sichuan pepper (once commonly spelt Szechuan) is completely misnamed.

Botanically, it is unrelated to the black or white peppers so common in Kiwi kitchens, and there is much more to this legendary spice than the "pepper" taste. It does undeniably pack heat, but this quality then gives way to a strange, numbing tingle on the tongue and in the mouth that can, frankly, be quite alarming if you're not expecting it.

These aromatics are held in the outer shell of the seed. The seed itself is tasteless in comparison, so Jenny and Lesley discard it completely, and grind up the husk for their own culinary use.

The couple had initially obtained the Sichuan pepper seed from Eastwoodhill Arboretum in Gisborne. At their farm, they propagate different trees and plants, including natives. Many of these – including the Sichuan pepper – are sold at the Tree Crops Association's annual sale in winter.

They sow the Sichuan pepper seed indoors in early spring, after three months of stratification.

Seedlings are moved outside when about 75mm tall and placed under shade cloth. When the seedlings reach approximately 300mm in January, they are potted up and put in full sun ("but they would be OK in part shade").

Jenny and Lesley's own nearly decade-old plants have received little attention, but still manage to fruit well enough – they have just harvested about 100g from each bush, and concede that a little TLC would've improved the crop.

The plants produce fruit on old wood, and Jenny and Lesley prune to shape in winter when the plant is dormant.

"Our existing two bushes are planted in average Waikato soil, and we understand that Zanthoxylum spp. will grow in a wide range of soils," the women say. Their plants are now 1.5m tall and seem to tolerate Waikato frosts well.

And while literature suggests the deciduous plants are dioecious (with male and female flowers on separate plants), the intrepid growers have observed that the plant can be self-fertile too. "Of course, having two or more plants would still increase the rate of pollination."

Best of all, they have not spotted any pest or disease – even the birds don't eat them.

Come harvest time though – when the berry husk starts to turn pink and eventually an appropriately livid, angry shade – the average gardener might come to doubt their devotion to growing exotic spices, because the large thorns are vicious.

Lesley and Jenny advise a "mindful" approach to the entire exercise of harvesting the crop if you wish to come away unscathed. For this reason, they add, it would be wise to plant in an out-of-the-way spot even though the leaves and bark are fragrant… and could, conceivably, tickle the nose of a thick-skinned gardener when brushed.

Sechuan Pepper is a unique and beautiful shrub that produces Sechuan Peppers, a key ingredient in Chinese cuisine. While it is called a pepper it is actually more closely related to citrus than to true peppercorns or hot chili peppers. The young shoots, flowers, berries, and seeds of this plant are all used in making unique and delicious spices and the plants themselves are absolutely beautiful with their knobby branches and contorted architecture. Grows well in full sun to nearly full shade so long as soils are kept moist. Pair Sansho (male) with Sechuan (female) for peppercorns.

Latin Name: Zanthoxylum simulans
Site and Soil: Szechuan like 1/2 day to full sun and well-drained soil.
Pollination Requirements: Dioecious, male and female plants needed for fruit set. Pair Sansho (male) with Sechuan (female) for peppercorns.
Hardiness: Szechuan is hardy to minus 10º F.
Bearing Age: 2-3 years after planting
Size at Maturity: 8-15 ft. in height
Bloom Time: Late Spring/Early Summer
Ripening Time: Late Summer/Early Fall
Yield: 1-2 lbs.
Pests & Diseases: Szechuan Pepper is not bothered by pests or diseases.
USDA Zone: 6
Sunset Western Zone: 6-9, 14-17
Sunset Northeast Zone: 31, 32, 34-41

Watch the video: 10 Impressive Benefits Of Sichuan Peppertimur szechuan peppercor

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