You may have heard it referred to as a pepper, but that shiny, tight skinned, green, red, purple, orange or gold strangely shaped vegetable that millions of people love to eat is not really a pepper at all! To be even more accurate, it is not even a distant relative of the piper nigrum or black pepper corn that is so liberally ground over almost everything we eat as seasoning or flavourant.
Hot chillis and sweet bell peppers are members of the Capsicum family of plants, which are indigenous to South America. Capsicums are members of the Solanaceae family, which includes the potato, eggplant or bringal, tomato and tobacco plants. The early Spaniards and Portuguese explorers named them peppers when they discovered that the natives of South America used this fiery spice to flavour their food. The spice was obtained by crushing dried chillis into a course power, and because of the similarity of burn to the black pepper used in Europe, the explorers christened it “Pepper”.
One explanation of the origin of the word capsicum comes from the Greek verb kapto which means to bite or to swallow hungrily, and could refer to the biting sensation of the hot chilli when consumed. The Oxford English dictionary maintains that the origin comes from the Latin word capsa meaning case or container. You decide which is more likely.
There are many arguments as to how the “chilli” of chilli pepper should be spelt. The spelling “chile” or “chili” derives from the Spanish and “chilli” or “chilly” from the Aztec. Rule of thumb is that “chilli” or “chili” refers to ground powder and “chile” refers to the fresh vegetable. One thing is for sure though, that no matter how you spell it or say it, it definitely doesn’t mean “cold”.
The varieties of chilli differ tremendously in size, colour, fleshiness, smell and most of all, in strength of burn. The only constant is the fact that they are all hollow and shaped like a fat tube closed at one end by the stalk. The other end can be rounded or it can taper into a point. In size they vary from tiny little hot fruit no bigger than a man’s small fingernail to bells as large as a man’s hand. The skins are generally taut, quite tough and shiny, and inside is a fleshy membrane varying in thickness from less than 1/16th of an inch to as thick as ¼ of an inch in the larger bell peppers and Poblano chillis. Fleshy white ribs or placenta run up the inside walls of the fruit and are covered with small, flat white seeds. This is where most of the heat is found in a chilli pepper and the reason is explained below under the heading “What is all of that heat designed to do in nature? The stalk is attached to a core, which obtrudes into the middle of the fruit. This is made out of the same fleshy material as the ribs and usually carries the bulk or the fruit’s seeds.
The most active chemical constituent in the capsicum is CAPSAICIN – a volatile compound which is closely related to vanillin, a component of vanilla. It is upon the quantity of Capsaicin in each plant that the fieriness of the fruit depends. Bell peppers are relatively low in Capsaicin (less than 0.001%), and the more pungent chilli peppers are high (approximately 1.3%) of the total volume of liquid carried by that fruit.
There are 50 species of capsicums, which include annuals, short-lived perennials and both deciduous and evergreen shrubs. Capsicums are sensitive to frost and thrive in well- drained soil. Too much rain will cause root rotting and thus, poor fruiting. If the soil is light and loamy or sandy and well fertilized and the rainfall is over 25 inches per annum (this can be achieved by watering of course), and the drainage is good, it is possible to grow capsicums virtually anywhere.
Capsicums are prone to attack by Red Spider mites, which suck the sap of the plants in hot dry weather and cause mottling on the upper leaves; these eventually turn bronze and fall off. The capsid bug can also cripple a growing plant and distort its leaves rendering it totally un-productive. Regular spraying is the only answer to bugs and disease. For a more organic approach to chilli farming, a simple method of combating bugs is to dissolve a bar of pure un-perfumed soap in a bucket of warm water. Let the solution cool and spray liberally onto your chilli plants every three to four weeks, depending on the levels of infestation. It is advisable to use this method of combating bugs a few weeks before you start to consume your chillis to avoid any poisoning that might occur from using regular insecticides.