An intricate history leads us to today’s varieties of heirloom sweet peppers.
Peppers have been associated with civilization for thousands of years, making them some of the oldest seed food crops domesticated in the New World. After Columbus found them growing in the West Indies, they rapidly circulated the globe and influenced many cuisines. The peppers I am discussing are sweet red peppers that we most commonly see today as the big blocky high-shouldered hybrids. Many people who have not gardened are surprised to learn that red peppers are simply ripe green peppers, which perhaps says more about our disconnection from food than anything else. I was never a big fan of green peppers; I find their taste just a bit too unripe and, well, green. They are a bit better cooked, but there’s no comparison with letting peppers reach their full lush ripeness and enjoying their rich sweet taste.
While sweet peppers are invariably called bell peppers, they come in a variety of shapes which are rarely seen in retail markets in the United States. They are the same species (Capsicum annuum) as hot peppers, and when grown in close proximity may transfer the “heat” gene to the next generation. An innocuous-looking bell pepper offspring may turn out to be a very large hot pepper.
Capsicum annuum most likely originated in east-central Mexico around 6,500 years ago from wild chili pepper, or bird pepper (C. annuum var. glabriusculum), a perennial shrub native to the northern half of Mexico that produces small pealike fruits. Seeds are spread by birds and can now be found from northern South America to the southwestern United States. Plants average 3 feet in height but in the right conditions can reach 9 feet. Fruits have a reputation of being fiery hot but all the dried samples I have consumed have been rather pleasant. C. annuum is one of four other domesticated peppers including C. chinense, C. frutescens, C. pubescens and C. baccatum. These species originate in South America, thus forming two separate areas of pepper domestication.
Most early descriptions of peppers in Mexico and the West Indies appear to refer to the hot types, and this could be for a variety of reasons. The only two species of Old World plants that brought any “heat” to food was the West African grains of paradise (Aframomum melegueta) that became supplanted by the far superior black pepper (Piper nigrum), whose trade and price was tightly controlled by the Dutch. Then hot peppers were “discovered,” which added a new important dimension to the palate, and could be grown in just about any moderate climate.
There were repeated introductions of various pepper varieties to the Old World from the New. It is clear that the Spaniards, being the conquerors of pepper growing regions of the New World, were the first to introduce them. They were further introduced to Europe via the Balkan Peninsula where they had been obtained by Ottoman Turks from their conquest of Portuguese colonies in Persia in 1513 and Indian islands in 1538. Thus German Botanist Leonhart Fuchs illustrated them as Indian or Calicut peppers in 1543. Many sources began calling them Indian peppers, maintaining the common belief they were of “Eastern” origin. The Portuguese probably introduced them to Africa and India and soon after peppers reached East Asia. They were thus called Guinea peppers, with the idea being they originated in the Guinea region of Africa. By the end of the 16th century, capsicums had already gone around the world. Peppers diffused across a wide array of cultures and geographies and were selected and/or hybridized for various characteristics, like for paprika in Hungary and Spain.
Pimento peppers were probably one of the earliest sweet peppers brought to Spain, a heart-shaped type with a distinctive flavor and thick flesh. It is likely they or a related type were being grown in northern Europe by the end of the 16th century. In Spanish, “pimento” simply means pepper, but this type became associated with Spain, generally referring to a sweet pepper. For years canned pimentos were imported to the United States from Spain, until the invention of an American pepper-roasting machine started our own pimento industry in Georgia around 1914.
By 1804 Philadelphia seedsman Bernard McMahon listed eight peppers in three colors including the Large Heart Capsicum and Red or Guinea Pepper. By 1812 Thomas Jefferson was growing Bull Nose pepper as well as Major, perhaps a pimento type. Seedsman Grant Thorburn in 1826 listed Tomato-Shaped and Bell. The California Wonder Bell was known as early as 1828, although not formally named or introduced until 100 years later as an improved variety. For much of the 20th century this was the standard blocky red bell pepper, although rather late-bearing in northern latitudes. Fearing Burr Jr. in his Field and Garden Vegetables of America mentions a variety of sweet peppers including, Bell, Quince, Sweet Spanish, and Sweet Mountain.
There are quite a number of heirloom pepper varieties available, mostly through the smaller open-pollinated and heirloom specialist catalogs. While the selections are not quite as plentiful as heirloom tomatoes, there is plenty to choose from.
One of the oldest named varieties in commerce is the Bull Nose Pepper, which appears in the mid 18th century, as a blocky, somewhat squat irregularly lobed pepper, with a strongly creased blossom end. The original may have been of smaller stature than the contemporary Bull Nose pepper, a medium-size bell, and at least in some types it was hot. What is available today probably was selection appearing later in the 19th century. Whether Bull Nose always referred to one exact type is unclear, but soon more named bell types were to appear.
While Maule’s Seed catalog of 1902 brags that Ruby King yields 12 to 18 fruits per plant, I have found it to be a bit more modest in output, but then it depends on your conditions and climate. It is an excellent sweet bell pepper introduced in the 1880s with good red color and excellent taste. It is fairly early bearing.
Chinese Giant is a big red pepper, true to its name, introduced by Burpee in 1900. It can be 6 inches long and 4 to 5 inches wide, three to four lobed, borne on relatively small but strong bushy plants. It is a fairly long-season pepper requiring almost three months to mature to a medium to deep red.
Napoleon doesn’t have the breadth of Chinese Giant and is a classic four-lobed blocky bell pepper, somewhat variable, fairly long at 6, sometimes 8, inches. The yield is good, taste is excellent, and it is an all-around great heirloom to grow.
It is hard to find a pimento pepper that is definitely heirloom, but the longer types available are certainly close. Very thick walls are their main characteristic. The classic pimento is what McMahon probably listed in 1804 as heart-shaped. The contemporary pimentos can be vaguely heart-shaped with some-to-no lobing, and taper from a wide top to a narrower blossom end. Other types of peppers have been used for pimento production including bell and tomato types and may be referred to as pimento.
Similarly shaped peppers with thinner walls may be used for paprika. One example is Feher Ozon, a Hungarian pepper which is yellow when unripe turning to an orange-red when ripe, with a semi spicy taste. Other types of Hungarian paprika peppers are more long-tapering, turning a classic red when ripe. Some can be fairly flavorful with aromatic or spice taste but not hot. There are hot paprika types too. One very attractive Bulgarian heirloom is the Chervena Chushka, deep red and tasty with thicker walls than a typical paprika type and used for fresh eating or frying.
Tomato peppers are another group of heirloom peppers. These are amongst the oldest types. They are relatively flattened and ribbed (or ruffled) and round like an early-19th century tomato. Some are relatively smooth and barely indented. They can have thick walls, or somewhat thinner. The thick-walled types make excellent pimento and are delicious smoked. Alma Paprika, Red Ruffled and Red Cheese are thick-walled pimento types. Be aware that many peppers labeled “tomato” on the market are hot varieties.
All of these peppers can be used for an array of purposes, some are just better suited than others. Let them ripen to their various shades of red, and in late summer you will be amply rewarded.
Ethnobotanist and former director of the Eastern Native Seed Conservancy, Lawrence Davis-Hollander gardens, cooks, and – at a nearby preserve – watches bald eagles and seasonal wildflowers.
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