CUBEB (Piper cubeba – Piperaceae)

Cubebs are the fruit of a vine belonging to the same family as that which produces the familiar black, white and green peppercorns (Piper nigrum). Piper cubeba is a climbing perennial shrub with dioecious flowers and spherical fruit containing a kernel. The fruits grow on strings like black pepper, but on separate little stalks which account for one of the common names, tail pepper (in French, poivre a queue). The fruits look very similar to black pepper, but are rather larger. They are less perfumed too than black pepper; they taste peppery and aromatic, pungent and bitter.
Cubeb pepper is native to the East Indian ‘Spice Islands’, to Java, Borneo and Sumatra, and is also grown in India, Sri Lanka and Reunion.
Cubeb pepper has been used since ancient times in China and India as a spice, and in Indian Ayurvedic practice as a medicine. The Arabs used it, too, for medicinal purposes, the name kubeba appearing for over four centuries in Arab manuscripts. St Hildegarde thought highly of cubeb as a remedy, considering it a great tonic of the nervous system, a good antiseptic and vulnerary. (She recommended it for warming the stomach and brain, for the weak, and for those with no colour in their cheeks!) In India, it was used to help gonorrhoea (a venereal disease with excessive mucus discharge), and it was from there and for that purpose that it was introduced to Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The essential oil was listed in the French pharmacopoeia until 1937 for the above properties, but was deleted after the advent of chemical antibiotics.


Description: This is viscous, thick and of a pale green or bluish colour, with a very characteristic scent of pepper plus a note of camphor.
The principal constituents: Cubeb is similar to pepper in its constituents, but has a high percentage of cubebine (40 – 55 per cent); others are amorphous cubebic acid, azulene, camphor, cubebin, dipentene, lineal, pinene and an alcohol which crystallizes when cold.
Dangers: Cubeb oil is often used to adulterate other essentials, and it in tum is often falsified with other oils. This, of course, completely destroys the therapeutic properties. It would be nice to revitalize the interests in cubeb oil, but it would mean that distillers would have to produce an absolutely pure oil. For a long time I have been unable to find a supply on which I can rely 100 per cent. There are, in fact, several cubeb distilleries in India, but the oil is not exported because there is no current demand in the West.


In illness
Cubeb is well worth using on skin rashes and inflammations: combine 50 ml (2 fl oz) almond, 2 drops wheatgerm and 5 drops cubeb. It is also useful for laryngitis, sore throat and other throat infections. Add 3 drops cubeb to a bowl of hot water for use as an inhalation, or cool this down for an antiseptic gargle.

Other uses
Cubeb is not used much as a spice, although in medieval times it was combined with other weird and wonderful sounding spices such as galangale and grains of paradise. It was one of the spices used in the wine cordial called Hippocras.

A to Z of Plants