Piperaceae (Pepper Family); Pipereae Tribe
Forms and Subspecies
It is possible that there are varieties, forms, or
subspecies that may be distinguished on the basis
of their leaves. However, the taxonomy of the
neotropical Piper species is quite confusing.
Piper auritum Kunth
Piper umbellatum 1.
Piper sanctum (Miq.) Schl. may also be a synonym;
Martinez 1987 (page 1188) lists practically
the same Mexican names for the two species.
Acoyo, acuya, acuyo, aguiyu, alahan, bakanil a iits'
(Huastec), cordoncillo, cordoncillo blanco, corriemineto,
coyoquelite, gold pepper, goldpfeffer,
hierba anis ("anise herb"), hierba de Santa Maria
(Spanish, "the herb of Saint Mary),279 hierba
santa, hinojo sabalero, ho'ben (Lacandon, "the
herb of the five"), hoja de anis, hoja de cancer, hoja
santa (Mexico, "sacred leaf"), homequelite, ixmaculan,
jaco, jinan (Totonac), maculan, ma'haw,
ma'j60, mak'ulan, mecax6chitl (Nahuatl), momo,
mumun, mumun te' (Tzeltal), omequelite,
omequilit-dos quelite, Santa Maria,2so tlampa,
tlanepa, tlanepaquelite, tlanipa, totzoay, tzon tzko
ntko, wo, woo, xalcuahuitl, xmaculan (Mayan/
Quintana Roo), x-mak-ulam, xmak'ulan, x'obel
(Mayan/San Antonio [Belize]), yerba santa
Gold pepper is an ancient traditional Mayan
remedy that was mentioned as a medicinal plant
in the few sources from the colonial period (e.g.,
the Motul dictionary and the Relaci6n de las casas
de Yucatan) (Roys 1976, 263*). In contemporary
Mexico, the primary use of the plant is as a
seasoning; fish and other seafood are wrapped in
the large, aromatic leaves and braised (Bye and
Lianres 1983,6*; Cioro 1982, 143*).
In Panama, the leaves were or still are used to
catch fish. Apparently, their scent attracts a food
fish known as sabala pipwu (Gupta et al. 1985).
In Brazil, the leaves were used in the industrial
production of raw safrole for the international
market (Rob Montgomery, pers. comm.).
Gold pepper is found from Mexico through
Central America and into South America. It is very
common among the tropical flora of Mexico (Chiapas), Belize, Panama, and Brazil and has
been carried into other tropical areas.
The plant is most easily propagated through
cuttings (approximately 15 to 20 cm long) taken
from the lower stems. In tropical areas, it can very
easily go wild and can displace other pepper plants
(e.g., Piper methysticum), thereby causing some
ecological damage (e.g., in Hawaii).
This evergreen perennial bush, which can grow to
a height of 4 to 5 meters, develops branched green
stems that do not lignify on their lower ends until
quite late. The leaves are opposite, oval, and
tapered at the end and project straight out from
the stem or droop slightly. The green-white, very
thin inflorescences extend straight up and can
attain a length of more than 10 cm.
Gold pepper is easily confused with the very
similar species Piper sanctum (possibly a synonym),
which is also known as haja santa and is also
rich in safrole (Martinez 1994, 185*). However,
Piper sanctum grows to a height of only 1.5 meters
and does not occur in the southeastern lowlands
(Argueta et al. 1994,813*).
The closely related and similar, but generally
smaller, species Piper amalaga 1. (see Piper spp.)
also contains safrole and is used ethnobotanically
in very similar ways (Arvigo and Balick 1994,
64 f. *). Some Maya regard this species as the
"female" counterpart of the «male" gold pepper.
Gold pepper is almost identical in appearance
to Piper methysticum; most laymen can distinguish
the two species only by the scent of the leaves.
- Fresh leaves
- Dried leaves
- Essential oil
Preparation and Dosage
Shade-dried leaves may be smoked by themselves
or in combination with other herbs (see smoking
blends). Fresh leaves are added to alcohol (aguardiente
=sugarcane alcohol, mescal; see Agave spp.)
(Argueta et al. 1994,49*).
The essential oil, which is easily obtained
through steam distillation (Gupta et al. 1985), is
suitable as a precursor for the synthesis of
amphetamine derivatives (e.g., MDMA; cf. herbal
An orallyRoute of administration in which the subject swallows a substance. administered dose of 9 g/kg of plant
extract did not have any lethal effects upon rats. When administered via Injection, the LDso iscalculated as 2g/kg (Argueta et al. 1994,50*).
Today in Belize, the large leaves are smoked, most
likely as a marijuana substitute (cf. Cannabis
indica) and for hedonistic purposes. To date, we
know of no traditional rituals in which gold
pepper has been used for its psychoactive
The natives of the West Indies (or Mexico) are
said to have once used Piper plantagineum Schlecht.,
a species found throughout the Caribbean region,
as a narcotic in a manner similar to the way kavakava
(Piper methysticum) is used. It is possible
that this species is synonymous with Piper
auritum. Unfortunately, almost nothing is known
In Belize (San Antonio, Cayo District), the large,
fresh leaves are heated over a wood fire and laid
over painful areas of the back, especially around
the small of the back. The Yucatec Maya of
Quintana Roo use the leaves as a stimulant, as an
analgesic, and to treat asthma, bronchitis, dyspnea,
weak digestion, stomachaches, head colds,
erysipelas, fever, gout, rheumatism, and wounds
(Cioro 1982, 143*; Roys 1976, 263*). In Mexican
folk medicine, the leaves are used for ethnogynecological
purposes. A tea made from the
leaves and mixed with honey is used to treat
scorpion stings. Juice pressed from the leaves is
ingested to relieve asthma, coughing, and
bronchitis (Argueta et al. 1994,49*).
The fresh leaf buds and young shoots can be
eaten as mild stimulants. When eaten, a mild
numbness is produced in the mouth that feels very
similar to the anesthesia of the mucous
membranes that is caused by Piper methysticum.
The leaves contain 0.47 to 0.58% essential oil
(Martinez 1994, 185*). The essential oil is also
present in the stalks, although in much lower
concentrations (Oscar and Poveda 1983).
The essential oil has a characteristic safrole or
sassafras scent and consists of up to 700/0 safrole;
also present are some forty other substances,
including a-thujene, a-pinene, camphene, sabinene,
~-pinene, myrcene, ~-phellandrene, carene,
a-terpinene, limonene, 1,8-cineole, ')'-terpinene,
~-phellandrene, cis-sabinene hydrate, nonanon-2,
r-cymenene, terpinolene, linalool, camphor, borneol,
r-cymene-8-ol, bornylacetate, eugenol, Delemene, a-cubenene, muurolene, a-copaene, ~bourbonene,
paraffin, ~-caryophyllene, humulene,
myristicin, ~-bisabolene, elemicine, D-cadinene,
cadina-1,4-dien, spathulenole, ~-caryophyllene
oxide, and n-hexadecane (Gupta et al. 1985;
Argueta et al. 1994, 49*).
The leaves have been found to also contain the
flavonoid 3'-hydroxy-4',7-dimethoxyflavone, ~sitosterol,
and the diterpene trans-phytol. Various
phenoles are also present in the leaves (Ampofo et
al. 1987). The roots contain isoquinoline alkaloids,
phenylpropenoids, and safrole (Argueta et al.
1994,49*; Hansel et al. 1975; Nair et al. 1989).
The pharmacological effects of the leaves are
clearly the result of their high safrole content (cf.
Commercial Forms and Regulations
Although the plant is not subject to any
regulations, it is not available as a living plant or as
dried raw plant material. Because it is a precursor
for the synthesis of MDMA and closely related
amphetamine derivatives, safrole is subject to
registration (cf. herbal ecstasy). In some areas,
trade in safrole or in preparations with a high
safrole content is regulated or even prohibited.
See also the entries for Piper betle, Piper methysticum,
Piper spp., and essential oils.
Ampofo, Stephen A., Vassilios Roussis, and David F.
Wiemer. 1987. New prenylated phenolics from
Piper auritum. Phytochemistry 26 (8): 2367-70.
Collera ZUfiiga, Ofelia. 1956. Contribuci6n al estudio
del Piper auritum. Mexico City: Tesis, Facultad de
Gupta, Mahabir P., Tomas D. Arias, Norris H.
Williams, R. Bos, and D. H. E. Tattje. 1985.
Safrole, the main component of the essential oil
from Piper auritum of Panama. Journal of
Natural Products 48 (2): 330.
Hansel, Rudolf, Anneliese Leuschke, and Arturo
Gomez-Pompa. 1975. Aporthine-type alkaloids
from Piper auritum. Lloydia 38:529-30.
Nair, Muraleedharan G., John Sommerville, and
Basil A. Burke. 1989. Phenyl propenoids from
roots of Piper auritum. Phytochemistry 28 (2):
Oscar, C. C., and A. 1. J. Poveda. 1983. Piper auritum
(H.B.K.), Piperaceae Family: Preliminary study
of the essential oil from its leaves. Ing. CienciasQuimicas 7 (1/2): 24-25.