Chili peppers (Capsicum spp.)

SOLANACEAE, Nightshade Family

Chili peppers (Capsicum; typical flower and a flower with seven petals) are native to the New World (Examples: small chilies and larger chilies). When Columbus discovered the New World, he was, of course, searching for a route to the spices of the Far East; instead, first in Cuba and later in Hispaniola, he encountered chilies, which are more pungent than even the peppers of the Old World. Records of the use of chilies in Mexico date back at least to 7000 B.C., and there is strong evidence that Mexican Indians cultivated peppers (ají or chilli) by 5500 B.C. From those humble beginnings arose, initially via artificial selection, the hundreds of common forms, including the jalapeño, chiltecpin (various spellings), ancho, serrano, paprika, cayenne pepper, and bell pepper (in many color forms: green, red, orange, yellow, brown, and purplish-black), to name a few. In all cases, botanically it is the seed-containing fruit that is consumed, specifically the fruit wall (pericarp), although your grocer probably labels these as "vegetables." The milder fruit types mostly arose during early European cultivation, and types with dry fruit walls were widely used because they travel and store well.

Chili peppers (especially C. annuum) were immediately imported to Europe for human consumption, reduced the value of black pepper (Piper nigrum), and quickly became an easily cultivated food and condiment around the world, especially transported by Spanish and Portuguese to African and Asian territories awarded to them by the papal Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) and Treaty of Zaragosa (1529). For example, chilies are widely used in Mandarin cooking, Hungarian goulash, and in southern Asian curries. So important were New World chilies to African diets that slave traders served these on slave vessels. Occasionally red chili powder has also been used as a weapon, e.g., by squirting it into the eyes or as punishment or torture, rubbing it into wounds. Since the 1980s pepper extract has been marketed as Pepper Spray, used by law enforcement and for self defense as an aerosol, non-lethal incapacitating weapon by producing excruciating burning and a few minutes of total blindness when sprayed directly into the eyes. For postal workers, Pepper Spray works because dogs hate hot peppers, although it was not very effective when the Incas burned chilies to halt the invading Spaniards in Peru. In addition to its use to stop thumb sucking and nail biting, third world peoples have traditionally used chilies for many medicinal purposes. For example, in northern Guatemala the Mayas used ic or char-ic (chilies) to cure diarrhea and cramps and allay asthma and coughs, and, much later, Mormons who settled in Utah made a tea of cayenne pepper to treat cholera. Modern research has revealed some relief in respiratory and bronchial distress, as well as alleviating alcoholic gastritis.

The active ingredient is capsaicin, a volatile phenolic similar in chemical structure to vanillin, and this substance is present only in the placenta that bears the seeds. A solution of capsaicin one part per 100,000 of water can be detected by the human tongue. Now that chemical is widely known after Capzasin-P was heavily marketed in the United States as a topical ointment for relieving persistent aches; this is an analgesic to kill nerves, thereby stopping pain messages. No seed of Capsicum contains capsaicin, so if you wish to save your out-of-town relatives from Mexican food that is too "hot," you must remove the white placenta on which the harmless seeds are attached. Capsaicin has also been used in ginger ale and ginger beer.

The most pungent pepper is the tabasco pepper (Capsicum frutescens), which was brought back to the United States by an American soldier around 1850 and given to a Louisiana banker, Edmund McIlhenny, who grew the plants on Avery Island (not really an island but a salt dome surrounded by marsh and bayou) and produced a sauce (Tabasco Sauce), first marketed after the Civil War (1868). This particular chili has up to 7.8% capsaicin. Now there are more than 70 million bottles of Tabasco Sauce sold each year. [Did you know that a few drops of Tabasco Sauce in soda water can temporarily dry up a cold?] Typical Louisiana hot sauce mash starts as crushed peppers and salt (ratio 100 to 8), aged for two years in sealed but vented Arkansas white oak barrels; the mixture bubbles carbon dioxide during the process, becoming an oil and vinegar solution. Just picking C. frutescens, the tabasco pepper fruit, which must not be broken, burns the skin, and the picker must avoid touching the face or eyes. Mechanical harvesting has never been successful or economical in comparison with skilled pickers. Most of the tabasco peppers are now obtained from outside the United States, e.g., in Honduras and Nicaragua, where a daily wage for picking is only a few dollars, but political unrest in Latin America has at times caused supply problems, and care must be taken to detect pesticides prohibited by the USDA on incoming foreign fruits.

Each type of pepper has a name and has particular pungent properties; some are very "hot," and others are mild or sweet, i.e., lacking capsaicin, such as bell peppers (forms of C. annuum). In the New World, this was the only "spice," and it livened up a very bland diet of maize, beans, squash, pumpkin, and so forth. Some research in gastroenterology has demonstrated markedly increased salivation and flow of gastric juices versus other spices when picante chili or spicy ginger (Zingiber) is added to bland food. Users also know that very hot peppers can produce immediate sweating.

Fortunately, chilies are not only exciting, but also nutritious. The red or orange pigment is carotene, which is a form of vitamin A, and even the green peppers are very rich in vitamin A, hidden by the green chlorophyll. In addition, chilies have perhaps the highest level of vitamin C per gram of tissue of any plant, including citrus; so peppers were an essential part of the pre-European New World diet for fulfilling vitamin requirements. Piquant chilies may have 100 milligrams of vitamin C and 16,000 units of vitamin A per ounce, three to four times daily dietary requirements! Peppers were used for much of the pioneering research on vitamin C. For example, in 1937 the Hungarian Albert von Szent-Györgyi received a Nobel Prize for his discoveries about vitamin C in human diets. Initially he used pig adrenal glands to isolate vitamin C in large quantities, but they became too scarce for his research. Albert lived in Szeged, Hungary, the center of the Hungarian paprika industry, and he was inspired to use these fruits for his work.

Peppers (Capsicum).

Species of cultivated and semi-cultivated peppers (after McLeod, Guttman, and Eshbaugh, Economic Botany 36:361-368, 1982)

Group I. Purple-flowered-pubescens group

Group II. White-flowered-baccatum group

Group III. White-flowered-annuum group


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