Sichuan Pepper Plant: Homegrown numbing spice

Do you love Sichuan beef? Do you crave a spicy dish full of Chinese pepper with a warm heat that makes your lips tingle? If you answered yes to both questions, look no further than the Sichuan pepper plant!

Szechuan peppers are not chili peppers. They are berries that grow on a Sichuan pepper tree. People grow Szechuan pepper trees for culinary and medicinal purposes. Sichuan pepper plants have a long history in China, where they originated.

Why are there different spellings of "Szechuan" in the phrase "Szechuan pepper"? How can this pepper be so hot? This answers those questions and also covers how to grow Szechuan pepper.

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Quick care instructions

The Sichuan pepper tree is unusual and produces an interesting species of spice. Source: johnbeutler

Common name(s)Sichuan Pepper, Szechuan Pepper, Szechuan Pepper, Chinese Pepper, Chinese Prickly Ash, Mala Pepper, Timut Pepper
Scientific nameZanthoxylum spp.
days until harvest120 days
BrightFull sun to part shade
water1 inch per week
floorWell draining
fertilizerGeneral purpose, slow release
pestsAphids, citrus leaf miners (the latter only minimal)
DiseasesPepper tree leaf spot, Fusarium wilt, Alternaria, citrus canker

All about the Sichuan pepper plant

Full size Sichuan pepperA mature Sichuan pepper tree. Source: Romana Klee

Szechuan pepper is a member of the global genus Zanthoxylum, which includes rue and citrus trees — to which Szechuan is closely related. The common names Szechuan pepper, Szechuan pepper, Chinese pepper, Chinese prickly ash, mala pepper, and timut pepper refer to several species. Differences in the Sichuan (Szechuan or Szechwan) spelling are due to the Americanization of the name of the region where the pepper originated.

Szechuan pepper plants were first cultivated in Szechuan province in the 1st century AD. At that time, this Chinese cuisine was not spicy. In fact, Sichuan peppercorns are not technically hot. Instead, they're oddly narcotic and have an anesthetic feel that mitigates the spiciness of hot chili peppers — although that wasn't their original purpose. It wasn't until the 4th century AD that hotter dishes became common in the Sichuan region.

The Szechuan pepper tree is a spiky bush that grows between 8 and 15 feet tall. Each branch has alternating pairs of thorns and 5 to 9 pairs of compound leaves slightly resembling a fern. Leaves appear in early spring. In April and May, young flowers of Szechuan pepper trees bloom with either male or female parts. The male tree is said to pollinate the female tree in early summer, so Szechuan pepper only forms on female trees.

Male flowers are tiny, resembling small elderflowers with yellow-green petals. The Sichuan pepper tree can be pollinated by hand but benefits from visits from insect pollinators. If pollination is successful, a green Sichuan pepper will form. In early fall, they turn bright red and burst open, releasing Sichuan peppercorns, which are small black seeds. At this time, the leaves fall from the tree in preparation for winter dormancy.

The flower, pepper, leaves and shoots are consumed. Corn is used in a Chinese five-spice powder blend along with ground star anise, cinnamon stick, fennel seed, and clove. Alternative forms of the Chinese five spices are white pepper instead of Szechuan pepper. Sichuan pepper oil is common in dipping sauces. The leaves are made into a pesto-like paste with citrus fruits, grilled with sprouts and fish, or added to soups. The peppercorns have the best numbing feeling when gently roasted and ground into a spice powder or flavored salt. Szechuan cuisine is known all over the world.

The peppercorns, along with other members of the citrus family, were banned from the United States from 1968 to 2005 because of problems with citrus canker. This bacterial disease affects citrus trees and can wipe out an orchard in a short time. While the ban lasted for decades, it was only loosely enforced until 2002. The ban was finally lifted in 2007, and today people can order peppercorns for worldwide shipping.

Kinds of Sichuan pepper

Zanthoxylum bungeanum is the pepper used in Chinese cuisine, particularly in the Sichuan region. It grows easily in USDA hardiness zones 5 through 9. That's because its native range includes the frigid areas of northern China to the subtropics of the south. Each fruit contains a single seed that is ground up and combined with chili pepper to create that spicy heat that people are usually looking for.

Zanthoxylum armatum is endemic to Pakistan, Southeast Asia, Japan, and Korea. It is commonly known as prickly ash. It grows easily in zones 5 through 9, up to 11 feet tall. It differs from other Zanthoxylum peppers in that the leaves are winged and rust-colored. The fruits of this tree are purple and smaller than other varieties.

Zanthoxylum piperitum is a productive Japanese pepper. It grows in zones 5 through 9. What sets it apart is the very dark seed contained within the bright red peppercorns. Relatively small amounts of black pepper contain bufotenine, a tryptamine that affects serotonin receptors.

Plant Sichuan pepper

Choose a spot in a garden bed or in a large container with good drainage to plant your Szechuan pepper plants in fall or spring. The site should have well-drained soil and full sun. Since citrus canker is a problem, keep it away from other citrus trees. Depending on the size of the Sichuan pepper plants you choose, place them 12 to 18 feet apart. The containers should be large enough to accommodate the root system, with some room for the Sichuan pepper to grow.

To plant your trees, dig a hole large enough to accommodate the root system and add a handful of fertilizer before placing the Szechuan pepper plants in. Then replace the soil and mound it lightly around the base of the tree, leaving a few inches of space between the mound and the trunk. Wrap a tree protector around the base to protect young bark from animals that may want to numb their gums on the tree. Plant transplants or bare-root shrubs this way. Most nurseries supply Szechuan pepper transplants in gardener's pots.

Alternatively, you can grow Szechuan peppers from seed in nursery pots. Provide well-drained soil and fertilizer when planting. Then keep the soil moist and the pots protected from frost. They need at least three months of cold weather to germinate.


Zanthoxylum piperitumThe Japanese form has very dark seeds in the corns. Source: wlcutler

Now that you know how to plant Szechuan pepper plants, let's discuss how to grow Szechuan pepper. Then you can incorporate this interesting spice into fried foods for seasons to come.

sun and temperature

Grow Szechuan peppers in an area with full sun that is direct 8 to 12 hours a day. Partial shade is also sufficient, but reduces the yields somewhat. In hotter climates, partial shade provides protection from intense sunlight. Most strains grow in zones 5 through 9, where temperatures range from cool to subtropical. The ideal temperature range for growing Sichuan pepper is between 40 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Szechuan pepper plants can handle lows in the single digits, especially when wrapped up in preparation for the cold. Hotter climates are no problem for these prickly bushes, but yellowed leaves result from too much heat.

water and moisture

When Szechuan pepper is young, water it daily. Plants in containers need more water than plants in the ground. Make sure the soil stays moist but not waterlogged. Use drip irrigation to water your Szechuan peppers in the morning. Soaker hoses work just as well. Concentrate the water at the base of the plant and avoid wetting the leaves. If it rains often, cut back. In case of drought, add enough water to keep the soil moist. Some varieties are drought tolerant.


The only soil requirement for growing Sichuan pepper is that it is well-draining. In compacted soil, add agricultural sand, organic matter, perlite, or loose potting mix to improve drainage. It's okay to grow Sichuan peppers in poor soil, but they will benefit from a little organic matter. Grow Szechuan peppers in slightly acidic soil with a pH of around 5.5.


When planting, provide the Szechuan pepper plant with a handful of 10-10-10 pellet fertilizer. Add another handful during the second year of growth in spring and summer as the tree develops.


When growing Sichuan peppers, you don't need to prune as much as you would with other crops. If you want to change the shape of the bush or remove damaged, diseased or dead branches, cut them off. Avoid removing new growth where Szechuan flowers turn into peppercorns.

Harvesting and Storage

Sichuan peppercornsThe stupefying pungency of Sichuan pepper sets it apart from other spices. Source: Timsackton

Szechuan peppercorns form in early summer if pollination is successful. In early autumn it is time to harvest them. Let's talk about the harvesting process and storing your yield.


You'll know it's time to harvest the plants when the corns open slightly, releasing the inner seed. Remove the entire bloom and dry in a warm, well-ventilated area for a day or two. Peppercorns that are still closed should be placed on paper to ripen and dry. Separate the husks from the seeds and store to use as whole spices, or use a clean coffee grinder to grind both into a coarse powder mixed with coarse salt. They can be lightly toasted on a baking sheet and ground into a fine powder. Use it to add a citrusy flavor to dishes. Add them to the lightly oiled skin of meat or sauté them with vegetables. Alternatively, you can dry fry equal amounts of peppercorns and salt, grind, and store as a fine powder.


Whole peppercorns can be stored in an airtight jar at room temperature for a few years. Freshly ground powder or coarse salts used to flavor meat should be used within two weeks for best flavor. Most guides recommend grinding it a little at a time to preserve flavor.

If you want to make Szechuan pepper oil, dry fry the grains, crush in a mortar and pestle, and place in hot oil for a few minutes. Strain the oil and store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to three months.


Sichuan pepper sprigsZanthoxylum piperitum has a characteristically bumpy, thorny wood. Source: Romana Klee

Because Szechuan pepper plants belong to the same family as other citrus plants, they have similar problems. Here we will discuss a few things to look out for.

growing problems

if you cut off new growth By mistake, you may not get as high a yield as if you didn't prune at all.

Soil that is compacted and does not drain well will slow down the growth of Sichuan plants. Ideally, in temperate climates, plant the tree in a spot that will not collect water. To reduce compaction or slow drainage, add a little agricultural sand to your soil mix if you encounter this problem.

During frost, trees become unprotected cold damaged. Remove damaged limbs as soon as possible and provide cover during the next frost.

submersion dries out the tree and reduces fruit production. Provide enough water to keep the top two inches consistently moist. waterlogging weakens and stresses the plant.


aphids are the only insects to worry about with Szechuan plants. They are congregated mites that feed on the sap and leaves of the tree. You will either notice them or leave honeydew behind. To get them under control, spray commercial neem oil all over the tree in the morning, outside of heat and bloom scenarios.

While citrus leaf miners can appear on your plants, they themselves will not cause serious damage. However, the citrus leaf miner is a vector for citrus canker and should therefore be prevented. Neem oil is also effective here, and BT can also be useful.


Leaf spots on the pepper tree is a bacterial disease that causes wet spots on leaves that eventually turn dark brown. In later stages, spot margins increase, yields decrease, and the fruit gets sunburnt. Treating seeds with warm water before planting will prevent leaf spot. Copper fungicides sprayed in the morning also work, but their effectiveness diminishes over time as the bacteria develop resistance. Remove and dispose of infested plant remains.

Fusarium wilt is a fungal disease that causes yellowing and wilting of trees. In later stages, the fungus leads to death. Warm water treatments of seeds can prevent infection. Some mycological treatments have been shown to reduce the spread of Fusarium fungus in the soil, but once it takes hold there are no viable treatments. Don't let the soil soak for long, as it provides the right habitat for Fusarium fungi.

alternative is a condition resulting from fungal infection of Szechuan plants. The leaves take on a brown-speckled appearance and curl. Defoliation and death occur in late stages. Most sources recommend treatment with copper fungicides applied at 7-10 day intervals until leaf spot stops spreading. Remove damaged foliage to prevent fungal spores from developing and spreading.

citrus crab is a common disease of citrus trees, and Sichuan pepper is closely related to citrus and is therefore susceptible. There is no cure for this disease, so prevention is essential. Maintain good hygiene practices and keep citrus leaf miners off your trees as they are pest vectors for this disease.

frequently asked Questions

Sichuan peppercorns on the treeSchezwan peppercorns on the tree. Source: rduta

Q: Can you grow Sichuan pepper in the US?

A: Yes! The ban on certain citrus plants in the USA has been lifted.

Q: Can I grow Sichuan pepper from seed?

A: Yes. Check out the planting section of this piece.

Q: Is Sichuan pepper poisonous?

A: No, but it causes a numbing feeling when eaten.

Q: Why was Sichuan pepper banned?

A: It and other citrus plants have been thought to be susceptible to an uncontrollable bacterial disease called citrus canker.

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