When Pepper Trees Shaded the 'Sunny Southland'

A pepper tree as seen through the ruins of Mission San Luis Rey in San Diego County. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

Today, it's hard to imagine Southern California without palm trees. They line our streets, shade our gardens, and guest-star in films to establish Los Angeles as the setting. But before the lanky palm conquered the L.A. skyline, another tree played the same metonymic role: the pepper.

An import from South America's Andes mountain range, the Peruvian pepper tree (Schinus molle) is instantly recognizable for its fragrant, lacy leaves, drooping branches, and knotted trunk. It also produces bunches of small, pink berries that resemble peppercorns but are not the stuff of common table pepper; though they can be used sparingly as a seasoning, the berries are poisonous in large quantities. (The Peruvian pepper tree does have a cousin in the Brazilian pepper, or Schinus terebinthifolius, but neither is closely related to the true pepper plant, Piper nigrum.)

In its native Peru, indigenous South Americans found many practical uses for the tree, from firewood to medicinal applications. More than 1,000 years ago, brewers in the Wari Empire produced a spicy beer from the tree's berries. Much later, Spanish conquerors cleared entire forests of pepper trees for their timber, creating wagon wheels and posts from the wood.

But in California, the pepper tree has been planted almost exclusively for ornamental purposes.

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Close-up view of the leaves and fruit of the Peruvian pepper tree. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

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.

Soon, gardeners across the state planted pepper trees to lend a romantic aura to a site. One emerged from the ground outside Santa Barbara's city hall around 1880. At about the same time, another pepper tree took root next to the mission at San Juan Capistrano.

In other places, the pepper functioned as a general shade tree, planted more for its vaguely exotic appearance, tolerance of semiarid conditions, and ready availability than for its romantic associations. As early as 1858, Matthew Keller was growing 1,500 young pepper seedlings at his Los Angeles nursery. In 1861, merchant Juan Temple planted what may have been the city's first street trees, a row of peppers outside his Main Street shop.

By the 1880s, pepper trees lined the signature thoroughfares of new communities across Southern California, from Ontario's Euclid Avenue to Riverside's Magnolia Avenue. (Town founder John W. North named the latter before discovering that southern magnolias cost $2 each. North opted instead to plant pepper and eucalyptus trees, priced at a more reasonable five cents each.) In Hollywood, subdivider Harvey H. Wilcox selected the pepper tree to shade his new town's roads. Pasadena boasted perhaps the most famous planting of pepper trees, whose spreading canopies created a much-photographed tunnel effect along Marengo Avenue.

But the dawn of the twentieth century introduced an existential threat to the pepper tree: a parasitic insect known as black scale. Though not fatal to pepper trees themselves, black scale jeopardized the health of the vast orange groves that carpeted much of Southern California. Faced with economic ruin, citrus growers -- joined by civic authorities -- declared war on the pepper tree.

But the familiar tree, prized for its beauty and nostalgic associations, had earned a loyal following. It often appeared on picture postcards and had become so associated with the state that many called it the California pepper tree, despite its South American origins. And so the campaign against the pepper tree did not go unchallenged. The Los Angeles Times published several reader-submitted poems praising the pepper tree and in a 1911 editorial cited its promotional value:

One of the first features to grip the eastern tourist when visiting this favored winter resort is the wonderful feathery foliage and the gorgeous scarlet berries of this matchless shade tree, giving, as it does, a pleasant air of holiday making and a wealth of tropical color to the Californian landscape...Why, the pepper tree has become an integral part of life in the sunny Southland...

Despite such passionate advocacy, the pepper tree soon lost its special place in the region's arboreal landscape. It fell out of favor as a street tree due to its tendency to heave sidewalks and send up suckers from its roots. And where black scale threatened citrus orchards, communities erased entire rows of peppers from their streets, in many cases replacing them with the upstart palms. Other reasons for their removal abounded. In 1913, the trees along Riverside's Magnolia Avenue fell to make way for new Pacific Electric Railway tracks. In 1931, highway widening claimed a row of historic pepper trees in Arcadia, planted nearly a half-century prior by Lucky Baldwin. And in 1955, a fungal infection forced Redlands to cut down its pepper trees. By then, the palm had already claimed the pepper's throne.

Pepper trees shade the ground outside Mission San Gabriel, ca.1884. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

A pepper tree stands near a statue of a missionary at the San Fernando Mission. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

Marengo Avenue in Pasadena was famous for its double-planting of pepper trees. Courtesy of the Pasadena Public Library.

Another view of Pasadena's Marengo Avenue pepper trees. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

Pepper trees line Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood near Wilcox in 1900. Courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

In Riverside, pepper trees (right) were planted across from eucalyptus trees. Palm trees were added later. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

Santa Ana's Tustin Drive was another well-known planting of pepper trees. Courtesy of the Santa Ana History Room Photograph Collection, Santa Ana Public Library.

Workers remove a pepper tree infected with Oak Root fungus in Santa Monica, ca.1950. Courtesy of the Santa Monica Public Library Image Archives.

L.A. as Subject is an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, cultural institutions, and private collectors. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region.

About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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