The chile pepper is the fruit of plants from the genus Capsicum, members of the nightshade family, Solanaceae. Genus Capsicum is native to the tropics of Central and South America. Many members of the Solanaceae family contain potent alkaloids, and some are highly toxic, but many, including tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, bell/chile peppers, and tobacco are widely used.
The genus Capsicum contains 5 domesticated species, a few semi-domesitated species and 30+ wild species. There are over 3500 varieties of domesticated chile peppers.
All species of wild peppers have certain common characteristics: small, hot, red fruits that may be round, elongated or conical and are attached to the plant in an upright position. The seeds of these fruits are dispersed by birds that are not affected by the heat.
When humans began to cultivate pepper plants they selected seeds from peppers that where difficult to remove from the calyx so that birds could not pluck them. Larger, pendent (hanging down instead of upright) fruits became more desirable, and today most domesticated peppers have pendent fruits instead of erect. Each time larger fruits where selected, the size and weight increased, which caused the peppers to become pendent.
Here’s a diagram that might help to visualize how the different chile species are related. Categorizing plants can be very frustrating, and in case of peppers, it is almost a hopeless task. So, please consider the categorization used here only as a tool to have some clarity to the messy relationships between pepper plants. In the diagram below, 2n=24 means the plant has 24 chromosomes and 2n=26 are the 26-chromosome varieties.
First lets discuss the domesticated species. These are the peppers we most commonly know and grow.
Capsicum annuum (AN-yoo-um):
Includes many common varieties such as Bell peppers, Cayenne, and Jalapeños. Although the species name annuum means “annual” the plant is not an annual and in the absence of winter frosts can survive several seasons and grow into a large perennial shrub. The single flowers are an off-white (sometimes purplish) color while the stem is densely branched and up to 60 centimeters (24 in) tall. The fruit is a berry and may be green, yellow or red when ripe. While the species can tolerate most climates, C. annuum is especially productive in warm and dry climates.
Capsicum baccatum (bah-COT-tum or bah-KAY-tum):
When speaking about Baccatums, a majority of the time we are really talking about C. baccatum var. pendulum. These are Capsicum Baccatums with fruits that hang down (pendant) instead of being upright, and include South American Aji peppers, Peppadew, Lemon drop, Bishop’s crown, and Brazilian Starfish. The baccatum species (C. baccatum var. pendulum) is the domesticated pepper of choice of Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru and Chile. You’ll see in the diagram above, that Baccatum has a subspecies called Pendulum. So too break down C. baccatum var. pendulum, that means Capsicum Baccatum, subspecies variety Pendulum. The fruit pods of the baccatum species have been cultivated into a wide variety of shapes and sizes, unlike other capsicum species, which tend to have a characteristic shape.
The earliest historical specimens of C. baccatum date to 2000 BC. Historical documents demonstrate the significance of the fruit in ancient Incan and earlier cultures. Contrary to the other four recognized domesticated Capsicum species, domesticated forms of C. baccatum are not commonly distributed outside South America.
Capsicum chinense (chi-NEN-see):
Some taxonomists consider them to be part of the species C. annuum, and they are a member of the C. annuum complex. In biology, a complex is a group of closely related species. C. chinense includes the hottest peppers such as the Naga, Habanero, Datil and Scotch Bonnet. C. chinense is native to Central America, the Yucatan region, and the Caribbean islands. In warm climates such as these, it is a perennial and can last for several years. Within C. chinense, the appearance and characteristics of the plants can vary greatly. Varieties such as the well-known habaneros grow to form small, compact perennial bushes. The flowers, as with most Capsicum species, are small and white with five petals. When it forms, the fruit varies greatly in color and shape, with red, orange, and yellow being the most common, but colors such as brown are also known. Another similarity with other species would be shallow roots, which are very common.
Capsicum frutescens (froo-TESS-enz):
Capsicum frutescens is sometimes distinguished as a species separate from Capsicum annuum, while some botanists consider them to be a member of the same species. Includes Malagueta, Tabasco and Thai peppers, Piri Piri, and Malawian Kambuzii. The Capsicum frutescens species likely originated in South or Central America. It spread quickly throughout the tropical and subtropical regions in this area and still grows wild today. Capsicum frutescens is currently native to the majority of Central America as well as Northern and Western South America. Pepper cultivars in Capsicum frutescens can be annual or short-lived perennial plants. Flowers are white with a greenish white or greenish yellow corolla. The plants’ berries typically grow erect. They are usually very small and hot. Fruit typically grows a pale yellow and matures to a bright red, but can also be other colors. C. frutescens has a smaller variety of shapes compared to other Capsicum species, likely because of the lack of human selection.
Capsicum pubescens (pew-BES-enz):
Includes the South American Rocoto peppers. The species name, pubescens, means hairy, which refers to the hairy leaves of this pepper plant. The hairiness of the leaves, along with the black seeds, distinguish this species from others. As they reach a relatively advanced age and the roots lignify quickly (become woody by the deposition of lignin), sometimes they are called tree chili. They grow into four-meter woody plants relatively quickly, and live up to 15 years, which gives them, especially with age, an almost tree-like appearance. Of all the domesticated species of peppers, this is the least widespread and systematically furthest away from all others. It is reproductively isolated from other species of the genus Capsicum. A very notable feature of this species is its ability to withstand cooler temperatures than other cultivated pepper plants, but cannot withstand frost.
Now the wild pepper species:
Wild pepper species of chiles are the ancestors of all domesticated species. All species of wild peppers have certain common characteristics: small, hot, red fruits that may be round, elongated or conical and are attached to the plant in an upright position.
Uncertainties in the classification of wild peppers:
Although many of the wild peppers themselves look very similar, flower position, corolla color (together, all of the petals of a flower are called a corolla), calyx teeth, seed color, and pubescence (fine short hairs on the leaves and stems of plants) may differ from species to species. BUT traits such as corolla color and shape, number, length and shape of calyx teeth are variable depending on climate and growing conditions as well, even within the same population or in the same plant; thus sometimes it’s difficult to determine to which species belongs a certain population. Some populations found in different locations and classified as distinct species show minor differences and could belong to the same species, with differences caused by environmental conditions.
For the wild peppers, I have color coded each Complex (in biology, a complex is a group of closely related species.). The colors match the species diagram above.
Capsicum annuum var. glabriusculum: This is the grandmother of nearly all commercial hot & sweet peppers we know today. The plant itself is often large and lives long (even 30 years). Since this is the ancestor of several domesticated chile species, it’s natural that there are several variations which represent the development of peppers we today call as Capsicum annuum, Capsicum chinense and Capsicum frutescens. All these three distinctive chile species do cross-breed quite easily, and their earliest, wild forms are genetically very similar.
Capsicum annuum var. glabriusculum is a variety of Capsicum annuum that is native to southern North America and northern South America. Common names include chiltepin, Indian pepper, chiltepe, and chile tepin, as well as turkey, bird’s eye, or simply bird peppers, due to their consumption and spread by wild birds.
Capsicum chacoense: Native to South America, the plant is known locally as ‘Tova’ or ‘Covincho’ in Paraguay, ‘ají putaparió’ in Argentina, and as ‘ají puta madre’ in Chile. The latter two are euphemisms related to its heat, often causing people to swear when eating it. It is propagated by seed, which is generally distributed by birds that eat the fruit and distribute it after it has been digested. Plants tend to crop heavily each season and in warm areas can easily keep producing for four or five years. The plant’s leaves are large, flat, and roundish, with a point at the end. The plant branches evenly, forming a small to medium shrub in most cases. Flowers are typically white.
Capsicum galapagoense: A very rare, wild pepper found only in the Galapagos Islands. Known for its ornamental foliage as well as tiny, red, pea sized fruits that are very hot to the taste. A shrubby plant that can grow as high as 3-4 feet with white flowers. Growth habit is similar to C. annuum. This species is noteworthy for its hairy, aromatic leaves. When someone touches the plant and the strong perfume odor fills the room. For some reason, this fragrance isn’t around all the time, and seems to depend on some still uncertain growing conditions. Perhaps the plant only uses the trick in blooming season, in order to attract more pollinators. The leaves generally remain small and casually resemble the tepin pepper in form. Flowers are small, solid white, similar in appearance to standard C. annuum flowers.
Capsicum baccatum var. baccatum: The wild grandmother of the “Aji” peppers of South America is a surprisingly humble, relatively small plant. The plant is generally smaller than wild “Tepin” annuums, unlike the larger “Aji” baccatums. The leaves are typical to baccatums, light green, smooth and sometimes a bit sticky. The flower is a miniature version of domesticated baccatum flowers, and the tiny fruits are very similar to wild annuum fruits.
Capsicum baccatum var. praetermissum (pree-TER-miss-um): Cumari Pollux is a Capsicum praetermissum, a wild chilli variety from Brazil. The small fruits are similar to the pequin. An uncommon plant, the edible fruits are quite hot. The leaves are larger than most of the common chile peppers. The small white flowers often have yellow spots due to a single dominant gene and are in small clusters. Fruits are about the size of a pea, though some plants seem to produce them with larger size. Fruits ripen from green to orange-yellow and finally to red. This pepper enjoys humid and warm conditions.
Capsicum baccatum var. umbilicatum: This rare variety of Capsicum baccatum that I can find practically no reliable information on. It appears to grow in Bolivia-Paraguay-Brazil area both as cultivated and wild. I’ve seen the Chapeu de Frade pepper listed as Capsicum baccatum var. umbilicatum. But the Chapeu de Frade looks a lot like Bishop’s Crown peppers to me, which are Capsicum baccatum var. pendulum. I’m going to have to file this one in ‘not sure’ category.
Capsicum tovarii: Named after Oscar Tovar who first discovered the plant in 1954 in the Rio Mantaro basin in south-central Peru and the province of Huancavelica Andahuaylas in the Andes Mountains of Peru. Tovari is one of the rarest capsicums grown by hobbyists. It’s also one of the smallest species in capsicum. Fruits are extraordinarily small, only 3-5mm, translucent green when raw, bright red when ripe. Its shiny leaves vary a lot in shape & size. Also known as ‘ Mukuru’ or Mucuru-uchu. Flowers are slightly yellow or yellow violet shades with green spots.
Capsicum eximium var. eximium: Native to a small area of Bolivia and Argentina, C. eximium has white to lavender flower petals. This species serves as a bridge with the species of the other two groups because of its crossing ability with C. baccatum and C. frutescens. It almost grows like a small tree. This pepper enjoys humid and warm conditions. These wild peppers are some of the slowest of all hot peppers to sprout. Germination is also erratic, with varying germination times for individual seeds in a single batch.
Capsicum eximium var. cardenasii: Found in La Paz, Bolivia, their native name is Ulupica. It is a member within the C. pubescens complex, a group of closely related Capsicum species. This is an interesting species with beautiful light green and purple flower petals and brown seeds. C. cardenasii develops small round red berries, sometimes referred to as chiltepins. Many wild Capsicums exhibit disease resistance of interest to plant breeders. C. cardenasii has been shown to be resistant to tobacco mosaic virus (TMV), and there is a possibility that one day this resistance may be transferred to other capsicum species through breeding.
These plants are a mixed group with often very little known about them. All these plants are very rare and images are hard to find.
Capsicum caballeroi: Extremely rare and found only in a small range in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. A shrubby plant, bearing similarities to Capsicum lanceolatum and reportedly growing up to 6-8 feet in height. The leaves are long for a pepper, and come to a sharp point at their ends. The flowers are yellow, making this species, along with C. rhomboideum, one of the few yellow flowered peppers. Fruits are tiny berries which ripen to red.
Capsicum ceratocalyx: Extremely rare and found in La Paz, Bolivia.
Capsicum dimorphum: Species with an unknown number of chromosomes spread to Colombia, Ecuador and Peru at altitudes of 1800-3000 meters. The plants have bushy habit and are very hairy. The leaves are arranged in opposite pairs of different shape and size, some large oval coming to a point, the other small and round. The fruit is round, orange or red, and pendulous. The fruits are not spicy and seeds are brown.
Capsicum flexuosum: The plant has shiny, kind of wax-coated, narrow, dark leaves. Small flowers with green or golden spots. Mature fruit of C. flexuosum are tiny, berries about 7 mm long that ripen to red. It has very little heat and it is quite sweet, a unique trait among wild capsicums. Seeds are brown/black. This rare bridge-species between the Western and the Eastern capsicums has 24 chromosomes like almost all the Western species do. Still, it does have clear features of the ancient Eastern 26-chromosome group, such as almost non-spicy, pendant fruit and dark seeds.
Capsicum geminifolium: Species with 26 chromosomes spread in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru at altitudes of 1500-3500 m. The plants are bushy with thin stems. The petals are united along their margins, white or yellowish with purple / brown spots in the throat and in the back of the petals. The fruit is round, orange to red, and pendulous. The seeds are brown and spiciness is not known. Images from different sources show variable characteristics and some peculiarities (such as the shape and arrangement of the leaves) that are similar to C. dimorphum (above). May also be called C. lycianthoides. Further field studies are needed for a better understanding of the relationships between these species.
Capsicum hookerianum: Common in South Ecuador and North Peru at altitudes of 100-800 m. They are bushy plants 1 to 3 m in height. Leaves are oval that come to a point. Like most wild peppers, the fruit is round, red when ripe. The seeds are brown and the spiciness is unknown. The species is similar to C.rhomboideum, but differs mainly due to the number of calyx teeth. This species has 10 evident teeth, sometimes 5 long and 5 shorter. The petals are yellowish without spots.
Capsicum parvifolium: Species with 24 chromosomes diffused in the coastal area in central Brazil (Piauì, Cearà, Rio Grande do Nord, Paraiba, Pernambuco, Bahia) and in Venezuela. The plant is a real tree with monopodial growth habits, meaning they grow upward from a single point. They add leaves to the top each year and the stem grows longer accordingly. It can reach considerable size (over 5 meters). The leaves are leathery, not hairy. It has purple petals edged in white, cream-yellow in the throat and in the tube. The fruit is roundish with a diameter of 9-10 mm, dark green from immature, orange-yellow when ripe. The seeds are dark brown and spiciness is medium.
Capsicum scolnikianum: Common in Ecuador (El Oro) and Peru (Piura, San Miguel) at altitudes of about 1500-2000 m. The plant has a high bushy habit of 1 to 5 m. The calyx has 5 prominent teeth, that face backwards on ripe fruit. The white-yellowish corolla (group of petals) are bell shaped. The fruit is round, erect, and red when ripe. The seeds are brown. It is unknown how spicy these peppers are.
ORIGINAL CAPSICUMS: 2n=26
These wild species of capsicum mostly grow in South-East Brazil’s Mata Atlántica zone. All or most of the species may have 26 chromosomes. None of them have been domesticated. Typical for these plants are: pendant flowers, dark seeds and yellow-green, relatively (or entirely) non-spicy fruit.
Capsicum buforum: Capsicum buforum may be the same as Capsicum mirabile (below), but not everyone agrees that it is the same species. A wild species found in the swampy areas of the Brazilian rain forests, first described in 1846 by A. T. Hunziker. A bushy plant that can reach heights between 1.5 ft and 10 ft. The dark green leaves are a narrow oval shape tapering to a point at each end. They develop 3-4 flowers per node with upright posture. The corolla has greenish-yellowish spots in the throat, purple red spots in the lobes. The fruits have a spherical shape and the size of a pea. The spiciness is moderate. They have a pendulous growth (hanging down), maturing from light green to yellowish. The seeds are black.
Capsicum rhomboideum: Known also as capsicum ciliatum (& witheringia ciliata), this is one of the most disputed species in capsicum. Due to its strange appearance, 13 chromosomes, yellow flowers and lack of heat, rhomboideum has been thrown in and out of capsicum for decades, depending on what each particular researcher has believed to be fit. Most recent research by e.g. Hunziker, Barboza & Bianchetti has, however, finally placed this plant officially into genus capsicum.
Capsicum rhomboideum is a perennial member of the genus Capsicum and is considered a distant wild relative of the chile pepper. Its fruits do not have any heat, and are a 0 on the Scoville scale. It gets its name from the rhomboidal to elliptical shape of its leaves. It is native to Mexico, Central America, and Andean region of South America. The flowers are yellow. Mature fruit of C. rhomboideum are pea-shaped and sized, bright red to black when fresh, and they darken as they dry. The seeds are brown.
Capsicum schottianum: The species Capsicum schottianum, together with C.villosum, is most widely spread throughout southeast Brazil, between San Paolo and Rio de Janeiro, in mountainous areas, at altitudes between 500 and 1800 m.
The plants are easily recognizable due to their tree like nature and lack of teeth at the calyx. The plants can reach considerable size (up to 4 meters in height, with wide foliage) and in favorable conditions they can be loaded with hundreds of fruits.
The corolla can vary greatly in color. The throat and the base of the petals have green or yellowish spots, while the middle part of the petals may have more or less diffused red-violet spots of various shapes. These spots may be present or not on the same plant, at different times of the year and with different weather conditions.
The fruit is round, about 6-8 mm, pendulous, more or less dark green from immature, yellowish when ripe. The seeds are black. The spiciness is moderate, greater in the immature fruits; the ripe fruits are rather sweet.