OF THE WEEK
T. Ombrello - UCC Biology Department
Red Peppers (some of which
never actually turn red) come in literally hundreds of varieties, many with
their own common names. Some of the
more common are:
Bell or Sweet - large, sweet, bell or box-shaped.
Cayenne - named for an island off the NE coast of South America. Used to make hot red pepper.
Cherry - red, yellow or purple in color, ½-1 inch diameter, very pungent.
Chili - from Chile, used for ground hot pepper.
Cone - conical shaped, standing erect on the plant, sweet and pungent types.
Habanero - from Havana, Cuba. One of the hottest pepper in the world.
Hungarian Wax - “medium” hot, developed in Europe.
Jalapeno - a hot pepper named for a city in the state of Vera Cruz, Mexico.
Pimento - the sweetest of all! When dried and the seeds removed, known as paprika.
Tabasco - a “hot” specialty from the southern United States, named for a state in Mexico.
Scientific Names: Capsicum annuum, Capsicum frutescens, and Capsicum chinense
Explanation of Scientific Names:
Capsicum - There are conflicting ideas as to the origin of this name. Some believe it is from the Latin “capsa” meaning “box”. The fruits of some varieties resemble boxes. Others believe Capsicum is from the Greek “capto” meaning “I bite”, for the acrid and pungent flavor of some varieties.
annuum - annual, referring to the short (one growing season) lifespan of the plant in temperate regions.
frutescens - Latin for shrubby or shrub-like in reference to the general appearance of the plant.
chinense - from China. This is a misnomer since this species is native to South America.
While the 5 cultivated species of Capsicum may be variously and almost endlessly grouped into varieties, almost all varieties of the commonly cultivated pepper in the United States belong to the species Capsicum annuum. Tabasco is the only Capsicum frutescens grown commercially in the United States, and Habanero is one of only a few Capsicum chinense varieties grown.
The Red Peppers all belong to the Nightshade family (Solanaceae), and are closely related to the tomato, potato, eggplant, and tobacco. They are native to Tropical America (probably Brazil) and have always been popular there. They have been cultivated in North and South America for thousands of years. Fragments of dried pepper fruits have been found in ancient Peruvian ruins, and a Mexican cave has yielded pieces of dried red peppers over 9,000 years old.
Immature Sweet Bell Pepper fruits.
They will turn red when they mature.
|Sweet Bell Pepper flowers.|
Ripe fruits of 'Thai Hot' pepper.
Ripening fruits of the ornamental pepper 'Treasures.'
They begin white, then turn yellow, then orange, and finally red.
Ripe(red) and unripe (green) fruits of one of the hottest peppers in the world.
It is known as Bhut Jolokia or 'Ghost Pepper.'
Foliage, flower, and fruit of the ornamental pepper 'Pretty Purple.'
In the tropics Red Peppers can be cultivated from sea level to elevations of over 6,000 feet. In their native habitat most Red Peppers live for several years and grow as shrubs with heights of 6-8 feet and “woody” trunks over 3 inches in diameter. The plants are capable of fruiting in the first year from seed and in temperate regions are grown as annuals, not developing “woody” tissue before being killed by frost. Red Peppers typically produce white, 5-petalled flowers which develop into fruits that are botanically hollow berries of varying shapes and sizes. Peppers seem to have a mechanism to protect them from overloading the plant with fruit. When the plant is carrying a full quota of fruit, new blossoms drop. When some peppers are removed (harvested), fruit set will occur again, if weather and soil conditions are appropriate.
All Red Peppers contain capsaicin, one of at least 7 pungent alkaloids found principally in their fruit and especially in their seeds and inner membranes. The “hotness” of the various Red Peppers is directly related to the amount of capsaicin in the fruit. A scale for measuring the hotness of Red Peppers was developed by W. Scoville in 1912. It is based on how diluted an extract of a pepper can be made, and still be detected by the human palate. So, the Habanero pepper, still tasted at 100,000 or even 300,000 to 1 dilutions, is assigned a rating of 100,000 to 300,000 Scoville heat units. As of this writing the hottest peppers are the jolokia varieties, rated at approximately 1,000,000 Scoville heat units. Bell or Sweet peppers, with little or no capsaicin, are assigned a value of 0 or 1.
Interestingly, the environment in which a Red Pepper is grown will affect the amount of capsaicin in the fruits. For example, a Red Pepper variety that is “mild” when grown in the mild conditions of a California coastal valley becomes “hot” when grown in the more stressful conditions of New Mexico.
Besides causing our taste buds to send nerve impulses to our brains to be interpreted as “hot”, capsaicin is also a rubefacient. It reddens skin when applied externally. It seems to desensitize or break down the neurons associated with heat and pain. Perhaps this is why people who regularly consume hot peppers do not taste them in the same way that a novice hot pepper consumer would. Harvesters of hot peppers have been temporarily and in some cases permanently blinded if they rubbed their eyes with their hands before thoroughly washing. On the positive side, capsaicin is the active ingredient in such diverse products as skin ointments (to relieve joint pain and muscle soreness), deer and rabbit repellents that can be sprayed on ornamental plants, and pepper sprays for personal protection. Capsaicin has also been demonstrated to be an appetite suppressant that increases metabolism, and useful in relieving nasal congestion. It may also be psychologically active as a result of encouraging the brain to release beta-endorphins.
Red Peppers can be an important component of a well-balanced diet. Many believe that they are a beneficial stimulant of the digestive system. They are certainly an excellent source of vitamin C. A red pepper has more vitamin C than an orange.
Red Peppers are unrelated to Black Pepper and White Pepper. Black Pepper and White Pepper come from Piper nigrum, a vine native to India. Black Pepper is the unripened fruit (peppercorn) that has been dried in the sun. White Pepper is the ripened fruit that has been soaked and rubbed to remove the outer covering.
The confusion among the terms, red, black, and white pepper stems from the time of Columbus. Spices and especially black pepper from the East were important in commerce and, therefore, of much interest to Columbus and his associates in the 15th century. In searching for a short route to India and the East Indies for trade, Columbus found the Indians of the West Indies growing and using fiery forms of Capsicum. The product was thought to be a form of Black Pepper widely known throughout Europe, so it was called Red Pepper.
Brought back to Spain in 1493, the spice-hungry Europeans enjoyed the new spice. By 1548 Red Peppers were grown in England and by 1585 they were introduced into Central Europe. During the 17th century the Portuguese introduced Red Peppers into India and Southeast Asia. They became so popular in India that some botanists thought they were native there. The number of varieties of Red Peppers began to proliferate as individual cultures selected plants for specific traits. Records indicate that there were 3 varieties in 1542, 13 in 1611, 20 in 1640, and 35 by 1699. There is little wonder why there are presently hundreds of varieties available. Today, by weight, more Red Peppers are produced and consumed than any other spice in the world.