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Capsicum, the peppers, is a genus of around 20 species of perennial herbaceous plants in the Solanaceae (nightshade family), which originated in Central and South America and the Caribbean and was domesticated over 5,000 years ago. Two species, C. annuum and C. frutescens, have been developed into numerous varieties that are now cultivated around the world for sweet and hot varieties of green and red bell peppers and chili peppers, that in dried form are one of the world’s most widely used spices.

Capsicum cultivars include regionally developed varieties including the paprika and pimento peppers (varieties of C. annuum), used in the Mediterranean (and typical of Hungarian goulash), and various spicy peppers, including cayenne, jalapenos, ancho (poblano), and numerous others (varieties of C. annuum and C. frutescens) used in Mexican, Indian, and Asian cooking. Lesser known species are cultivated or grow wild in the Andes, including C. pubescens (rocoto), C. baccatum (Andean ají), and C. cardenasii and C. eximium (ulupicas).

Capsicum plants, which are perennial but often cultivated as annuals in temperate climates, are many-branched plants, often shrubby in appearance (although not true shrubs because they are not woody), with simple, alternate, oval to elliptical leaves with smooth margins (entire). The flowers, which are borne singly or in small clusters in the axils (where leaves join stems) are campanulate (bell-shaped), white or greenish, often with 5 lobes, containing 5 bluish stamens. The fruits are many-seeded berries--pod-like, but with no sutures—that vary considerably in size and shape, ripening to green, yellow, orange, red, or purple.

Peppers, which are high in vitamins A and C are used fresh, cooked, or dried in an enormous variety of dishes characteristic of different regional cuisines. For example, paprika and pimiento peppers are used in the Mediterranean dishes, including dishes such as the Italian caponata (a salad prepared from cooked eggplant and peppers), the French ratatouille (an eggplant and pepper dish), Spanish gazpacho (a soup of blended fresh tomatos and peppers), and Hungarian goulash (a meat stew seasoned with paprika). Numerous varieties of spicy peppers, including cayenne, jalapenos, ancho (poblano), are used in Mexican, Indian, and Asian cooking.

Capsicum annuum and other Capisicum species produce capsaicin, an intense skin and eye irritant, that is used in pepper sprays sold for self-defense. However, capsaicin also has numerous medical uses, including topical pain relief for muscle soreness, shingles, skin irritations, and rheumatism, and as an anti-inflammatory. Recent medical research has also documented capsaicin’s antimicrobial and antifungal activity, and on-going studies are exploring its use in cancer treatment.

Although known as peppers, Capsicum species are not related to the spice known as black pepper (Piper nigrum, in the Piperaceae), which was prominent in the spice trade of the Middle Ages, and for which Christopher Columbus may have been searching when he brought Capsicum to Europe and referred to it by the same common name.

(Bailey et al. 1976, Chowdhury et al. 1996, Cichewicza and Thorpe 1996, Hedrick 1919, NAS 1989, van Wyk 2005, Wikipedia 2012.)


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