The Americas Kitchen Garden Display

The Chilli Pepper: Small American Fruit Ignites Global Taste Sensation

1_mOrigin and Discovery

The Chilli plant produces a small fruit sometimes called Chili, Chile, Agi, Felfel, Mirchi, or Bisbas, which stimulates taste buds, enlivens recipes and fires people’s imagination all over the world. Chilli peppers originated in South and Central America and are one of the oldest self pollinating crops cultivated by man. Archaeologists have found evidence that Chillies were used in cooking more than 6,000 years ago in Ecuador, and that Squash and Chilli gardens existed at least 5000 years ago in the Tehuacan valley, southeast of the present-day Mexico City. Chillies were being grown in the Caribbean when Christopher Columbus, on his first visit to the Americas in 1492, reported that the local “Indians” flavoured their food with Agi, their word for Chilli pepper.

Chilli seeds and the story of their use as a fiery spice were sent back to Spain during Columbus’s second voyage in 1494. The explorers had been searching for a new route to India and hence a source of black pepper. When they discovered Chillies the explorers thought they were a form of pepper and so called them “pimientos” Spanish for pepper!


It was the Portuguese not the Spaniards who made Chillies a really global crop. They were the first traders to spread Chillies around the coasts of Africa and India, areas we now think of as traditional consumers of hot spicy food. The Portuguese had exclusive rights to trade on the eastern routes with Africa and India around the Cape of Good Hope. Chillies were rapidly distributed to East Africa and on to the Malabar Coast of India in the early 1500s.

2_mBy 1540 the Portuguese had taken Chilli seeds to the Far East and on to Indonesia from whence local traders took them to China. Soon Indian, Arab and Turkish traders were playing their part in one of the fastest distributions of any crop in history. There has been so much local development and breeding of Chilli varieties that many countries consider them indigenous. Chillies were eventually exported back to Europe from India, and were indeed thought to be an indigenous Indian crop until 1868.

Commercial Species

The Chilli pepper genus is given the botanical name “Capsicum” and the most common species is Capsicum Annuum, meaning the annual, which is very misleading considering that most varieties overwinter well in mild climates. Capsicum Annuum originated in the middle of America, the Southern USA down to Columbia in the South . This species gives us the majority of the well recognized commercial peppers grown throughout the world, including Bell, Ancho, Hungarian Hot wax, Anaheim, Cayenne, Serrano, Jalapeno, Fresno, and even the wild Chiltepin from the Texas countryside.

The species important to red hot chilli fans is Capsicum Chinense which produces “Chinese lantern” shaped fruit is native to the Caribbean and South America. These really eye watering varieties include the famous Scotch Bonnet Chillies which give West Indian food its fiery reputation. Habanero and our very own Dorset Naga are some of the hottest Chillies in the world, and along with Red Savina or Devils Tongue, and Bhut Jolokia have made the Guinness Book of Records.

Why are Chillies Hot?

Capsaicin, an alkaloid compound found only in Chilli peppers, determines the heat of the fruit. While the skin and seeds contain small amounts, the white membrane inside which contains almost 90% of the Chilli pepper’s capsaicin.

It is thought that Capsicums evolved high capsaicin levels to deter mammals from eating their fruits. Once a mammal such as a cactus mouse or a pack rat consumes the seeds they are digested in the gut and hence will not germinate after passing through the body. Birds however do not damage the seeds by eating them and in fact their digestion encourages germination. As birds cannot taste capsaicin they are happy to eat the peppers and distribute these viable seeds to new territory. The human enjoyment of hot burning sensations in the mouth has unfortunately outwitted thousands of years of plant evolution!

How hot are our Chillies?

Chilli heat is usually measured in Scoville units, named after Wilbur Scoville, who invented the method based on human taste buds in 1912. Ground dried chillies are extracted with alcohol under precise conditions and the extract diluted with sugar water until tasters can no longer detect the heat. This dilution ratio is the number of Scoville units. Thus a Serrano at 10,000 units is 100 times hotter than a Pimento at 100 units. The modern method is to use liquid chromatography (HPLC) to analyse the capsaicin content which can then be expressed in standard Scoville units. The figures in the table below are only a rough guide. The heat level developed in a particular type of chilli varies between seed batches and growing conditions. Very hot weather tends to produce hotter chillies, also leaving them on the plant to fully ripen helps with heat development.

Potato – Solanum Tuberosum

“It is a root of extraordinary use to mankind…”

Small, many-coloured and bitter, the first cultivated potatoes were grown in Peru at least 2,000 years ago. They usually grow at altitudes of about 6,000 feet in The Andes, but can grow at 14 to 15,000 feet, much higher than any other vegetable. A convenience food called chuno was first made from them in ancient times. The tubers were spread out overnight to freeze, and when they thawed next day they were trodden with bare feet to extract moisture. Covered and left to dry out naturally, they became very hard and lasted almost indefinitely.

3_mThe first European to discover potatoes was a Spanish invader in 1536, who called them ‘truffles’ and wrote that they were ‘a dainty dish even for the Spaniards.’ These conquerors used it to feed their slave workers in the Peruvian silver mines. The first mention of it reaching Europe is from a written record of a hospital in Seville in 1573, shipped in as winter stores. Although there are stories of Sir Walter Raleigh bringing it to this country from Virginia, there is no real evidence for this. It is generally believed that the potato arrived in Britain in the 1590s and was regarded as an ornamental plant for many years. Earlier references to it are generally accepted to mean the sweet potato, Ipomaea batatas. The potato was not welcomed as a food plant for several reasons. It resembled Deadly Nightshade, it was said to cause leprosy and it was never mentioned in the Bible. The date when it reached Ireland is not known but it quickly became established as a staple food there until it was wiped out by blight in 1845 causing starvation and mass emigration. In England the crop was adopted gradually from the late 18th to early 19th centuries especially in Lancashire; cookery books often giving a recipe ‘To cook potatoes the Lancashire way’ They are now the fourth most important crop in the world, after wheat, maize and rice, grown in 150 countries.

The Tomato: From Wolf Peach to Sungold

The tomato is part of the Solanaceae family in which we find Aubergine, Chilli, Potato, Tobacco, and the poisonous Deadly Nightshade. It was named Lycopersicon, or Wolf Peach as a result of confusion among renaissance botanists but this only added to the widely held belief that it was poisonous. Now we call it Lycopersicon esculentum or edible wolf peach!

4_mThe tomato comes from South America and was cultivated by the Aztecs in what is now Mexico. They named it “Xitomatl” or big tomatillo as they ate the fruit of both plants. The Aztecs prepared them with chopped chilli and squash seeds, which sounds like a recipe for Salsa!

The Spanish conquistadors brought the tomato to Europe and cultivation began in the Mediterranean region in the 1540s. The Spanish and Italians quickly introduced tomatoes into their diet but when they arrived in England in the 1590s they were considered “of ranke and stinking savour” in John Gerard’s herbal, so tomato soups and garnish did not make it onto English dining tables until the mid 1700s when it was mentioned in Hannah Glasse’s “The Art of Cookery”, with a recipe “To Dress Haddock after the Spanish Way”.

The small yellow and large lumpy varieties favoured by the Aztecs and introduced to Europe had the genetic potential to produce a bewildering range of varieties. Most tomatoes are self pollinating and this made it easy for farmers to perpetuate any useful variations they found.

From small yellow cherries such as Sungold to huge beefsteak Tomatoes such as Big Boy, and from the purple flesh of Black Tula to the stripy Tigerella, there is a tantalising range of flavours and colours to excite the senses.

Tangy cherry and grape tomatoes such as Harlequin and Suncherry or big tasty slicing tomatoes such as Marmande are wonderful in salads whereas “plum” varieties such as Roma, Brigade and Italian San Marzano make delicious sauces and are ideal for canning.

Are tomatoes toxic? Yes they are! The roots, leaves and green fruit contain solanine, a powerful toxin, which causes gastrointestinal and neurological disorders, so it is best to avoid green tomatoes!

The Three Sisters / corn, beans, squash

The Three Sisters Garden is a method of planting utilized by Native American farmers. The three sisters represent corn, beans and squash, three crops that should be planted together, in mounded hills, and shared among the community.

Maize is the supporting sister providing a climbing frame for the other two. Planted first and harvested last, it is the staple or energy providing crop of the trio.

Beans are the nourishing sister, feeding the ground with nitrogen, which helps the other two sisters to grow and prosper. They also provide a crop rich in valuable protein which can be dried and stored for the winter and for times of shortage.

Squash is the protecting sister, providing ground cover which prevents weed growth and water loss. Squash can be consumed alone as a nutritious vegetable, or used as a thickener in soups and stews.

Other foods plants from the Americas.

Did you know that all of these food plants that have revolutionised our diets since their discovery originated in the Americas?

Jerusalem artichokes, avocado, agave, bergamot, blueberry, blackberry, cassava, groundnuts, tomatillo, sweet potatoes, sunflowers, landcress, white lupin, oca, cacao, pineapple, guava.