The Capsicum Genus

Capsicum terminology is very confusing with Pepper, chilli, chile, chili, aji, paprika and capsicum all used interchangeably to describe the plants and pods of the genus Capsicum. We have chosen to use 'chile' as this is the most common terminology used in the UK. It is believed Chiles were first cultivated by the people of Central and South America in around 7000BC and there are now a bewildering range of over 3000 known varieties ranging from the mildest bell pepper to the fiery hot habanero. The botantical 'genus' to which all chiles belong is Capsicum (CAP-see-coom), from the greek kapto meaning 'to bite'. The genus Capsicum is also a member of the wider Solanaceae or nightshade family and therefore Chile peppers are closely related to their genetic cousins, the tomato, potato, tobacco and eggplant. Ever since, English doctor turned botanist Robert Morrison described 33 species of Chile peppers in his study, 'Plantarum Historiae Universalis Oxonniensis', published in 1680, there has been much argument and debate amongst botanists and taxonomists as to the number and classification of Capsicum species.

After much argument and amendment, it is now widely accepted that the genus Capsicum consists of five domesticated species and twenty-six wild species. Due to the ease at which the domesticated species in particular cross pollinate with each other and the active development and hybridisation of new varieties often for marketing purposes, there is now a baffling range of varieties available making classification and increasingly difficult task. More detailed information and picture illustrations of each of these species and their numerous cultivars can be found in thechileman's database. To refine your search, be sure to select the appropriate species from the drop down list. The five domesticated species Annuum, Baccatum, Chinense, Frutescens and Pubescens are the most commonly available species to the Chile enthusiast and each species has its own distinguishing characteristics.

Capsicum Annuum (ANN-you-um)

© Mark McMullan© Mark McMullan Annuum meaning 'annual' is actually an incorrect designation given that Chiles are perennials under suitable growing conditions. This species is the most common and extensively cultivated of the five domesticated species and includes the Ancho, Bell Pepper, Cayenne, Cherry, Cuban, De Arbol, Jalapeno, Mirasol, Ornamental, New Mexican, Paprika, Pimiento, Pequin, Serrano, Squash and Wax pod types.

Annuum's used to be dividend into two categories, sweet (or mild) peppers and hot Chile peppers. However, modern plant breeding has removed that distinction as hot bell varieties and sweet Jalapenos have now been bred.

Capsicum Chinense (chi-NEN-see)

  Chinense meaning 'from China' is also a misnomer as this species originated in the Amazon Basin and is now common throughout the Caribbean, Central and South America and in the tropics.

This species includes many of the world's hottest cultivars including the Habanero, Scotch Bonnet and the legendary Red Savina. The pod types, as well as the plants are very varied in this species although they are characterised by a distinctive fruity aroma often described as apricot like.

The Chinense being a tropical species tend to do best in areas of high humidity. They are relatively slower growers, having longer growing seasons than many of the other species and seeds can take a long time to germinate.

Capsicum Baccatum (bah-COT-tum or bah-KAY-tum)

© Mark McMullan© Mark McMullan Baccatum meaning 'berry-like' consists of the South American cultivars known as Aji's. They are almost as many baccatum cultivars as annuums with pods ranging from non-pungent to very hot.

The baccatum species is generally distinguished from the other species by the yellow or tan spots on the corollas (on the flowers) and by the yellow anthers. Many of the baccatum species are tall growing, often reaching 5 feet in height and pods are usually erect and become pendant as they mature.

Capsicum Frutescens (fru-TES-enz)

© Mark McMullan© Mark McMullan Frutescens meaning 'shrubby' or 'bushy' is not widely cultivated with the exception of the Tabasco, which has been used in the manufacture of the world famous sauce since 1848. Another famous variety is the Malagueta, which grows in the amazon basin in Brazil where the species probably originated.

Frutescens plants have a compact habit, have many stems and grow between 1 and 4 feet high depending upon local conditions. The flowers have greenish white corollas with no spots and purple anthers. Pod types are less varied than the other species (with the exception of Pubescens) are often small, pointy and grow erect on the plants. This species is particularly good for container gardening and a single plant can produce 100 or more pods.

Capsicum Pubescens (pew-BES-enz)

© Chillifire© Morten Bjergstrom Pubescens meaning 'hairy' is probably the least common on the five domesticated species and is the only domesticated Capsicum species with no wild form. However two wild species 'Cardenasii' and 'Eximium' are believed to be closely related. Pubescens has a compact to erect habit (sometimes sprawling and vine like) and can grow up to 8 feet tall, although 2 feet is more usual. The flowers have purple corollas, purple and white anthers and stand erect from the leaves. The pods are normally pear or apple shaped.

One interesting point to note is that the species is 'isolated' from the other domesticated species as it cannot cross pollinate with them. Another distinguishing feature of the species is the black seeds of the fruits. Varieties include the Peruvian 'Rocoto' and the Mexican 'Manzano'. Probably the most difficult of the five domesticated species to grow.

The Wild Species

The twenty six wild species lack extensive study on their biology and seeds are much harder to come by as they are often subject to restricted seed distribution. An interesting generalisation is that most of the wild Chile species have small fruits, which are eaten with ease by birds; the natural dispersal agent for Capsicum species. The 23 widely recognised wild species are:

Buforum

A wild Chile species native to Brazil.

Caatingae

A recent classfication (2011) from north east Brazil.

Campylopodium

A wild Chile species native to Southern Brazil

Cardenasii

A tubular purple flowering wild species native to La Paz, Bolivia. Genetically it is part of taxa including Capsicum pubescens and is more commonly known as 'Ulupica'.

Chacoense

A small white flowering wild species native to Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay. It is known locally as 'Tova' in Paraguay. The Plant has an erect growing habit and is approximately 80 cm tall. The erect pods are elongated, triangular, 2.5 cm long, 0.5 cm wide and mature from green to red. Very scarce.

Coccineum

A white flowering wild Chile species native to Bolivia and Peru.

Cornutum

A wild Chile species native to Southern Brazil.

Dimorphum

A wild Chile species native to Colombia.

Dusenii

A wild Chile species native to south-east Brazil.

Exile

A white flowering wild species not commercially grown, although several Chile enthusiasts have successfully grown the cultivar 'Cobincho'. This plant is very unlike most other capsicums. Plants can grow to over 130 cm tall with small, smooth leaves.

Eximium

A purple flowering wild species native to Bolivia and northern Argentina. Said to be a wild relative of the Rocoto. Genetically part of taxa including Capsicum pubescens and said to grow like a small tree.

Galapaqoense

A white flowering wild species native to the Galapagos Islands of Isabela and Santa Cruz. Also found in Ecuador. The pods of this plant are very hot and grow to 0.25 inches long, maturing from dark green to red.

Geminifolium

A wild Chile species native to Colombia and Ecuador.

Hookerianum

A wild Chile species native to Ecuador.

Lanceolatum

A wild Chile species native to Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico.

Leptopodum

A wild Chile species native to Brazil.

Longidentatum

A recent classfication (2011) from north east Brazil.

Minutiflorum

A wild Chile species native to Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay.

Mirabile

A wild Chile species native to southern Brazil.

Parvifolium

A wild Chile species native to north-east Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela.

Praetermissum

Sold commercially in parts of Brazil and also known as Capsicum baccatum var. praetermissum. This variety can grow up to six feet tall in a single growing season and has hundreds of cranberry sized fruit that ripen to red. The flowers are totally flat when fully opened, are purple edged with a white inner band and have a greenish yellow centre. The ripe fruits are said to be very seedy.

Rhomboideum

A very unusual and scarce wild Capsicum species initially believed to be a sister to Capsicum Tovarii although after further study by Eshbaugh in 1988, it has since been omitted from Capsicum species list. Native to Southern Mexico & South America, this species has pubescent stems and leaves and yellow flowers. The tiny red fruits have no heat. Now a synonym for Witheringia ciliata although more recently it has been reclassified (yet again) as Capsicum rhomboideum.

Schottianum

A wild Chile species native to Argentina, south Brazil and south-east Paraguay. These 80-100 cm tall erect plants have many branches which grown in a zig zag pattern. The flowers are white with yellow-green spots at the base of the petals. Fruits are pendulous and reddish-orange at maturity.

Scolnikianum

A wild Chile species native to Peru.

Tovarii

A purple flower wild species native to the Rio Mantaro basin in south-central Peru. Genetically part of taxa including Capsicum pubescens.

Villosum

A wild Chile species native to southern Brazil.