Some Like It Hot, Peppers Capsicum

Children’s Gardening

By —— Bio and Archives--September 21, 2007

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Scientists call peppers Capsicum. The word comes from Greek kapto, which means ‘to bite.’ In different shapes, colours and sizes, they have been doing just that for over 9,000 years. Some South and Central Americans liked it hot.

There are 20 species of these annual and perennial plants. Some in the tropics are even short-lived shrubs. Most of our modern peppers, whether mild or blazing hot, originated with Capsicum annuum. This has been cultivated for so long that it is unknown in the wild. Apart from the green ‘bell’ peppers in the supermarkets now, you can thank C. annuum for paprika, the pimentos stuffed into olives and jalapeno all the way up to scorching “bird” peppers. They originated in South America.

There may be a small bottle of Tabasco sauce in your kitchen cupboard. The name comes from the Mexican state, but it wasn’t brewed from a form of Capsicum frutescens together with vinegar and salt until the late 19th century by Edmund McIlhenny of Louisiana. C. pubescens is hotter still—one form from Peru is said there to be “hot enough to kill a gringo.” The notorious haberno hails from the West Indies and is confusingly known by scientists as C. chinensis, but has nothing to do with China. Looking like an orange-yellow walnut, it is often sold here in tightly covered clear plastic packaging for good reason: It is the hottest commonly available.

Science often waits to progress for a reliable form of measurement to devised. Determination of a pepper’s heat was invented in 1912 by Wilbur Scoville, who gave his name to the scientific measure. Scoville Heat Units, (SHU), rate sweet bell peppers at 0, Mr. McIlhenny’s Tabasco sauce at just 2.500 and jalapeno peppers from 2,500 to 4,000 SCUs.

This is a long way from Capsicum chinensis, which may have been what an impressed European reported of peppers brought back by Columbus as hot enough to kill a dog. Two centuries later, a single pod from a variety originating in Cuba was claimed enough to stop a bull from eating.

Never, ever, handle these peppers without wearing rubber gloves. And don’t even think of sniffing even the dried seeds. I once sent back some such seed from West Africa. My wife’s aunt received a small envelope of pepper seeds to be shared with keen gardening neighbours. She could never explain why, but opening the package she took a sniff. Never again will she be in any doubt why hot pepper is an excellent deterrent.

Sprinkled on and around plants apt to visitations by mice, squirrels, groundhogs and rabbits, it sends the furry rabble running. It has no effect on birds, however, so some commercial seed mixtures are treated with Capsicum to prevent raids from squirrels.
Some people also make homemade insecticides by lightly simmering the peppers in hot water, straining and filling the liquid into a sprayer. Many common pests are claimed destroyed by this natural, non-chemical pesticide.

Capsicum also features in some commercial repellents, such as the protecting spray carried by mailmen against possible attacks by dogs. Alas, a similar product alleged to repel bears from backpackers’ and canoers’ camps has been reported to attract both black and grizzly bears. They apparently share the taste for hot foods as much as some humans.

Peppers also have had their scientific uses. The Hungarian Dr. Szent-Gyoryi was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1937 for discovering vitamin C in paprika. The spice also figures some delicious and very popular Hungarian recipes. Could this have been just a coincidence? The peppers from which paprika originates also have a higher vitamin C content than oranges. Somehow though, a glass of fresh pepper juice hasn’t caught on for breakfast, much to the relief of Florida citrus farmers.

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Wes Porter -- Bio and Archives | Comments

Wes Porter is a horticultural consultant and writer based in Toronto. Wes has over 40 years of experience in both temperate and tropical horticulture from three continents.

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