What if you were able to obtain rich, superior antioxidants, simply by seasoning your food?
This is a privilege many Australians can enjoy, but don’t take advantage of nearly enough.
Mountain pepper or Tasmanian native pepper (Tasmannia Lanceolata) is a shrub that grows in the alpine regions of Tasmania and south-east mainland Australia. It thrives in the type of cool, wet habitats that can be found in mountain gullies. The native plant produces aromatic leaves, and during the autumn months, the female species develops small fleshy black berries on its distinctive reddish stems. Both the leaves and berries can be dried and used as a cooking spice, and when milled, the hardened berries make for a terrific substitute for conventional pepper.
Compared to our everyday pepper however, mountain pepper has more of a herbal dimension, and packs more of a spicer, sharper, hotter punch.
It’s why Indigenous people use whole peppercorns or crush the spice into a paste, and apply the pepper to toothaches or sore gums, says Trish Hodge, the managing director of Nita Education, an Aboriginal cultural education program. “I guess when you’re on fire, you’re not going the think about anything else."
Mountain pepper has not only served Indigenous people as a flavouring agent for food over generations, but by and large, as a traditional medicine. Due to its high antioxidants, mountain pepper has been documented as a treatment for a variety of illnesses from stomach aches and colic, to skin disorders and venereal diseases. The tonic, made from ground berries, leaves and bark is also recorded as being used by early European settlers to treat scurvy.
Hodge, who is also a Tasmanian Palawa woman, says her father continues to use the plant daily for its medicinal properties.
“He makes a big pot of tea, about two litres worth, every morning,” she says. “And just using leaf tea, he then puts a handful of mountain pepper leaves and sassafras leaves in his tea. Because he’s got muscular atrophy and a few other painful diseases, he’s on morphine daily, but he’s actually cut back on a third of his pain medication because he uses the bush medicine.”
With potent antioxidants, four times more powerful than the beloved blueberry, mountain pepper’s health benefits are just as useful today as they have been over centuries. Antioxidants are linked to helping with diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease, autoimmune and cardiovascular diseases, but more recent research highlights mountain pepper’s unique antiviral properties.
Dr Ian Cock, senior lecturer in Bimolecular and Physical Sciences at Griffith University told SBS Food, “The berry inhibits the growth of many pathogenic bacteria, protozoa and also has some limited antiviral activity. It also has good anti-cancer activity against multiple cancer cell lines.”
Also striking: the plant’s antibacterial properties. With antimicrobial components, mountain pepper has been found to inhibit the growth of food poisoning bacteria and prevent food spoilage, which Dr Cock's research demonstrates.
“I talked to a group of bush food enthusiasts – not scientists – about several Aussie plants as both flavourants and preservatives, a person who was a butcher approached me and asked for ways to extend the shelf life of his sausages,” Dr Cock says. “I suggested trying the pepperberry and lemon myrtle in combination. He later reported to me that it doubled the refrigerated shelf life of his sausages. That, of course, is anecdotal rather than empirical, but still it is impressive. We have tried it as a fish preservative and see similar trends.”
“The berry inhibits the growth of many pathogenic bacteria, protozoa and also has some limited antiviral activity. It also has good anti-cancer activity against multiple cancer cell lines.”
Despite being an ‘Aussie superfood’, mountain pepper is a rather small agricultural industry. It can take several years for the trees to begin to fruit and only half the plants bear fruit anyway, so pepper berries are a prized crop (luckily, the leaves are more commercially viable).
Russell Langfield, a grower in north-west Tasmania whose interest and passion in bush foods came from working with Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory for a few years, tells SBS Food that the mountain pepper industry is growing, but the annual harvest is very weather dependant.
“The trees grow very slowly and are very susceptible to heat and dryness. It took nine years before I broke even in a given year,” he says.
Two of the last three years were the hottest ever in Tasmania and that caused most of the pepperberry trees to either not flower or drop fruit, so there was little to no harvest those years. Even the currawongs (known for eating the pepperberries) came down from the mountains months earlier this year, because there were no berries for them up there, either.
“Climate change is real. Everyone in the farming sector all over the world that I talk with knows and experiences it."
Within Australia's small industry, large quantities of mountain pepper end up in Japan to be used as a flavouring and fragrance for wasabi paste. Langfield says that his product doesn’t get sent to Japanese markets, instead it's used to flavour beers and spirits in Australia and abroad.
Growers like Langfield are necessary in helping make the spice accessible. Because unlike other bush foods that are easily foraged, Trish Hodge points out that mountain pepper can be trickier to source.
“Mountain pepper is alpine and you can damage a lot of the rest of the environment by going to get [it],” she says.
“A lot of the stuff is in national parks or heritage or protected areas, so to actually go and gather it is quite difficult." She warns that there are penalties if you do the wrong thing, too.
Hodge advocates for using traditional foods, as long as it's done "sustainably, ethically and in consultation with Aboriginal people”.
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