All About Green and Red Sweet Peppers

An intricate history leads us to today’s varieties of heirloom sweet peppers.


| September/October 2016



Arroz con pollo peppers

If the spicy seeds of the Arroz Con Pollo pepper are removed, all that’s left is delicious, smoky flavor.

Photo courtesy Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds; www.RareSeeds.com

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.





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