Common pepper species

This week, we take a look at the most important Capsicum species. Some of these vary a great deal from each other, while a number share similar characteristics.

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Capsicum frutescens
This is the well-known chilli, of which there are several varieties, including some that are very pungent (hot). The African Bird’s Eye chilli is one, as is the tabasco pepper used to make the well-known sauce. A relatively new introduction is the extremely pungent Naga Jolica, or ghost pepper, which is a C. fruitescens/C. chinense hybrid. It has a tested pungency of almost double the reading of the previous world record holder.

Capsicum baccatum

This was virtually unknown in South Africa before the launch of Peppadew, the brand name of sweet piquanté peppers. It has been grown in Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe for many years. There was also a longer variety with similar pungency, taste and colour that was used in preserves for a time. When asked by the company that made the preserves to check the purity of the variety, I could find no ‘off’ types in the lands.

To my astonishment, I also discovered that it was self-pollinating. To date it’s the only Capsicum variety I’ve come across that has this characteristic. Usually, the anthers release pollen as the flower opens, which allows for insect cross-pollination. In this case, the anthers release their pollen before the flowers open, by which time they are fully self-pollinated. C. baccatum bushes are usually rather large and can be highly productive in summer.

Capsicum pubescens

As far as I know, this species is not cultivated commercially in South Africa. As the name implies, the leaves and stems are hairier than those of the other commercial species. C. pubescens will not cross-pollinate with other species. The fruit can resemble small apples or be slightly elongated. It tends to be rather pungent. The seeds are usually jet black, but some varieties are brown. The flowers are a pretty, deep-blue colour. This variety is quite specific in its climatic requirements and does not like extremes of hot and cold. This limits its popularity.

Capiscum chinense
Some of the most pungent varieties are from this species. There is the well-known habanero known to be exceptionally hot, and the newer very pungent varieties are also from this species. There is the distinct fruitiness that we have in C. Baccatum but it is slightly different on average. One would think, by its name, that it originated in China but this is not so. A botanist from Holland thought it came from China when he gave it the species name and the name has stuck ever since.

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Capsicum annuum
This group has a mild flavour compared with some of the other species. It includes all the bell peppers, paprika and hundreds of chilli varieties, such as cayenne pepper, serrano and jalapeño. C. annuum and C. baccatum consist of many varieties that have thick walls. They are useful for many dishes including salsa and chilli sauces, which consequently becomes more economical. The latter is named after Xalapa (also spelt Jalapa) in Mexico and has become very popular in this country and the USA. It is picked and used while still green, but is occasionally allowed to fully ripen and turn red.

Serrano peppers, also from Mexico, are typically eaten raw and are hotter than the jalapeño. Cayenne pepper is named after a city in French Guiana and is usually ground to a powder. As can be seen, when it comes to Capsicum, the varieties within the different species mean that there is something for everyone.