Here's a palette of peppers piled on a plate from Steve's 2000 fall harvest.
There are about 23 species of chile peppers (genus Capsicum), but nearly all of the cultivated varieties belong to one of just four or five species. All of the peppers are perennial semi-woody sub-shrubs, although they usually are cultivated as annuals. They are mainly glabrous (without pubescence), much branched, 2-4 ft (0.6-1.2 m) tall, with alternate leaves and modest little flowers which give rise to colorful fruits (berries technically).
Most Americans refer to peppers as "hot", or "sweet", but picky pepper people prefer "piquant" and "nonpiquant." Peppers that bite back are piquant - mild peppers are nonpiquant. "Hot" is a measure of temperature - a pepper is hot if it just came off the stove. "Sweet" is the flavor caused by sugar, not the opposite of hot. "Pungent" is a different sensation altogether - it's the piercing feeling you get in the nose from strong onions, horseradish or Chinese mustard. But we aren't going to completely buck tradition here; we use hot and piquant interchangeably.
Thousands of years of selection have resulted in peppers with similar characteristics in each of the biological species, and those species can be difficult to differentiate. Capsicum baccatum is the only pepper species with distinct spots on the flower petals and with prominent teeth on the calyx. Most of the peppers grown and eaten in tropical and subtropical South America belong to this species. These are usually called aji or kellu-uchu when fresh, and cusqueno when dried. The plants have large leaves and can get more than 8' tall. Piquant and nonpiquant varieties are grown. Many of the aji cultivars will not flower until days have only 12 hours of daylight. Ajis are rarely found outside of South America.
C. pubescens is the only pepper species with black seeds (all the others are straw colored). The stems and leaves are slightly fuzzy. This is the most distinctive of all the cultivated peppers. The fruits look like small apples and have very thick fleshy walls. They are extremely piquant. They are called rocoto in South America and manzano or caballo in Mexico. Rocotos do not flower until the days shorten to 12 hours of daylight, and they are rarely seen in the U.S., Europe or Asia.
C. frutescens and C. chinense are quite difficult to distinguish, and many authorities lump them as one species, C. frutescens, which is characterized by having two or more purple or greenish white flowers at each node. This species includes some of the hottest of the peppers, but there also are some totally mild varieties, too. If both species are recognized, habanero, Scotch bonnet, rocotillo, squash pepper and datil would be classified as C. chinense and tabasco would be classified as C. frutescens.
This is the famous tabasco pepper from which the fiery sauce of the same name is prepared.
C. annuum is by far the most important pepper species everywhere except South America. The flowers are usually solitary, and usually creamy white. There are more than a thousand named cultivars. All of the bell peppers and most of the chiles familiar to Americans belong to this species. Popular varieties of C. annuum are jalapeno, poblano, ancho, pasilla, chilaca, chiltepin, tepin, bird pepper, chile piquen, 'Big Jim', cherry pepper, Thai pepper, Hungarian wax, peperoncini, New Mexican chile, Anaheim, banana pepper, cascabella, cascabel, serrano, paprika, mirasol, guajillo, pimento, chile de arbol, cayenne and cubanelle. The ornamental peppers like 'Fiesta', 'Trifetti' and 'Rooster' belong to this species.
Location Capsacum baccatum probably originated in northern Argentina and Bolivia. It is cultivated throughout much of South America. C. pubescens originated in the high elevations of the Andes in Ecuador and Bolivia. It is cultivated there as well as in the mountainous regions of Mexico and Central America. C. frutescens (including C. chinense) probably originated in the Amazon basin of South America. Various cultivars are cultivated in the Caribbean region, Central and South America, Asia and Africa. Tabasco peppers are an important cash crop in southern Louisiana. C. annuum probably originated in Central America and Mexico. Peppers belonging to this species are cultivated in every country in the world. Today India is the world's largest producer of chile peppers.
Peppers are grown much like tomatoes.
Light: Full sun. Moisture: Peppers will produce best when supplied with adequate water. They are not particularly drought tolerant. If the soil is well drained they thrive best when it rains every day. Hardiness: Although they are perennial, peppers (except for rocotos) are usually grown as annuals, even in tropical climates. Mature plants can tolerate a touch of frost. Rocotos (C. pubescens) are the hardiest of the lot, and won't even flower if temperatures are much above 80º F (27º C). Propagation: Peppers are grown from seed. See Floridata's Start Your Own Pepper and Tomato Plants for details. In temperate climates, seeds are usually started indoors 6-8 weeks before the last expected frost. Seedlings are set out 2-4 ft (0.6-1.2 m) apart after all danger of frost has past. Most types require caging or staking. Peppers are self-pollinating, but honey bees, sweat bees and other insects often cause cross-pollination between pepper plants growing near one another. If you want to save seeds, you should grow only one variety of a species, or keep the different varieties at least 500 ft (152 m) apart, or bag a few blossoms so insects can't get in. Clean the seeds and dry until brittle before storing.
Usage Chiles are used raw and in cooking. They are ground into powders, made into sauces, stuffed with meats and other vegetables, stuffed into olives, roasted over hot coals, fried in oil, pickled, dried and fermented, and used to flavor almost any dish imaginable. (Note that the "chile powder" of American supermarkets is a mixture of ground red peppers, cumin, clove and garlic.) In most of the world peppers are eaten when ripe. In the U.S. it is common to eat some kinds of peppers in the green stage as well, despite the fact that they have a somewhat bitter taste. Whether they are hot or not, all peppers are sweeter when they are ripe, and ripe peppers have a distinctly different flavor than green peppers.
This is a bell pepper turning from green to red as it ripens.
In the wild, pepper seeds were dispersed by birds which ate the fruits with impunity. Unlike mammals, birds are immune to the effects of capsaicin, the ingredient that gives peppers their characteristic bite. Most of the capsaicin is located in the interior tissue of the pepper, where the seeds are attached. Peppers can be rendered considerably less piquant by slicing in half and scraping out the seeds and associated membranes with a spoon. The amount of capsaicin varies among chile pepper types, with the growing conditions (hotter, dryer weather makes for hotter peppers) and even between fruits on the same plant. Ripe peppers are sweeter and often (but not always) hotter than green peppers. Peppers are sometimes ranked in Scoville Units which are nothing more than the number of times an extract of pepper dissolved in alcohol can be diluted half and half in sugar water and the capsaicin still tasted. Bell peppers get a zero on this scale; jalapenos around 3000; tabascos around 60,000; and habaneros around 300,000. Less subjective techniques like chromatography actually measure the amount of capsaicin in the peppers.
Capsaicin causes the brain to release endorphins, natural pain killers that promote a sense of well being. It has the effect of deadening pain receptors. Topical applications of capsaicin are prescribed for arthritis, phantom limb pain, tendonitis, sore muscles and shingles. Capsaicin mouth washes and nasal sprays are prescribed for toothache, bronchitis, asthma, and migraine headaches. The nasal sprays stop chronic runny noses and sneezing and reduce congestion. Capsaicin aids digestion and appetite, seems to lower blood sugar and cholesterol and reduces blood clotting. Capsaicin creams for topical application as pain relievers are available as over-the-counter drugs, but they are expensive. You can make your own by blending some habaneros, seeds and all, with mineral oil, then straining the concoction and mixing it over heat with beeswax or paraffin.
Concentrated pepper sprays are used as defensive repellents by mail carriers and police. Organic gardeners use pepper sprays to protect crops from insect, rabbit and deer damage: Blend habaneros with some water and liquid dishwashing soap. Hot pepper powder keeps dogs, cats and squirrels away: Dry habaneros, then grind into powder. Concoctions of chile pepper are used to curtail thumb sucking and to facilitate weaning. Indians in Columbia use a snuff made from chile powder and ground coca leaves.
Hungarian wax pepper
By the time Columbus arrived in the New World, Amerindians had been using chiles for more than 9000 years and growing their own for more than 5000 years. Unknown to Europeans and Asians until Columbus "discovered" it, the chile pepper soon replaced black pepper (Piper nigrum - a totally unrelated plant from India and the East Indies) as the world's most important and most used condiment. In fact 16th century Spanish merchants advocated use of the name "pimiento" for this new, cheaper spice, over the objections of Dutch traders who were importing the more expensive real thing. The natives that Columbus met on the Caribbean Islands called them aji. On the mainland, the Aztecs called them chilli, and most of the world still does today. In Mexico, though, they are now called chile, and in the U.S. they are called chile or chili or pepper. In the Far East, the English word for hot peppers is chilli or chilly and the peppers that aren't hot are called capsicums.
Different pepper varieties of the same species may hybridize in the garden and the seeds thus produced can give rise to plants with intermediate characteristics. However, nonpiquant peppers can never become piquant (or vice versa), just because they are growing next to each other.
The capsaicin in chile peppers can burn the skin and irritate the eyes. Wear rubber gloves or rinse your hands in rubbing alcohol after handling (Capsaicin is not soluble in water and is difficult to wash off with soap and water.) Water won't help cool the mouth either; milk, yogurt, rice and bread offer some relief.
Steve Christman 10/13/00; updated 04/24/03, 08/11/03, 11/25/03, 1/12/05, 2/9/10, 2/8/12
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