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American Peppers
Nature Bulletin No. 528-A   May 4, 1974
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

In 1492 when Columbus bravely sailed westward from the port of Palos, in southern Spain, he was seeking a short route to India and the fabled Spice Islands. In those days, pepper and other spices were brought overland by camel caravans from Asia and were literally worth their weight in gold. He was sure that he had succeeded when, after landing on the island of San Salvador, they found copper-skinned people growing plants with scarlet fruits that were fiery hot when eaten.

Columbus was mistaken. The natives were not "Indians" and the plants were not "peppers." Although we commonly call them American or Garden Peppers, those plants were no kin whatsoever to the woody vines and shrubs which, in oriental tropics, produce the little black peppercorns so precious then in Europe. Instead, they are members of the Nightshade Family which includes such dissimilar relatives as the tomato and the white or Irish potato, petunias, and some famous for their narcotic and poisonous properties -- notably tobacco, belladonna or deadly nightshade, and Jimson Weed.

Capsicum Pepper is the name used by botanists for the kind of plants Columbus found, because the pungency of their podlike fruit is caused by capsaicin, a compound so potent that your tongue is irritated by and can detect an unbelievable -- small amount of it. Some, like the big bullnose or sweet peppers have scarcely any. An old name for them was "mango peppers. " Others, like the tiny yellow fruits of the "bird peppers" grown in Mexico and Central America, have so much capsaicin and are so fiery that they are known as "devil peppers".

In addition to this great variation in size and pungency, the fruits of capsicum peppers grow in all sorts of shapes -- round, conical, pear- like, carrot-like, flat as a bean pod, and even twisted. Some are dark red when ripe, some scarlet, and others are yellow or nearly white. Probably no other food plant varies as much in the character of its fruits.

There is some question as to where these peppers originated. Fragments of different types of fruits, and pottery molded in their shapes or ornamented with pictures of them, have been discovered in Peruvian ruins more than 2000 years old. But wherever the early explorers went in the American tropics -- in the West Indies and from Chile to what is now Arizona -- they found many varieties being grown.

Capsicum peppers are used as condiments and as food. We eat the large sweet ones, when green, as a vegetable -- either cooked, or raw in salads. Mexicans and our southwestern Indians eat great quantities of fiery hot peppers, green or ripe, fresh or dried. Certain hot kinds, called chili peppers, are used with beans and chopped meat to make chili con carne. Pimiento peppers -- a sweet thick-fleshed bright-red type -- are used in cheese and in stuffed olives.

Cayenne pepper is the dried and ground fruit of a long slender kind of red pepper that is very hot and was named for the capital of French Guyana. Paprika is made from a long thick variety, bright red but sweet, cultivated in Hungary and adjacent countries. The Tabasco pepper, named for a state in southern Mexico, is one of the "devil peppers." It is the basis of Tabasco Sauce, a pungent condiment manufactured by a famous family in Louisiana. Perhaps the hottest of all pepper sauces is made in the West Indies where they boast that one drop of it will burn a hole through a table cloth.

We will take that with a grain of salt.

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