Peppers, part of the Solanaceae family, are available in both sweet and hot (chile pepper) varieties and can be found growing in warm climates throughout the world. Strong evidence suggests the origin of domesticated peppers was concentrated around Mexico, Central America, and the northern regions of South America. In 1493 pepper seeds were taken to Spain, where bell peppers gained popularity throughout Asia and Europe.
The pepper is botanically a fruit because it is grown from a blossom; however, when cooking, they are often treated as vegetables. California and Florida lead bell pepper production in the United States, along with Georgia, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Ohio helping fulfill demand. Major chile pepper producers include Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas. Two additional profiles have specific information on chile peppers and greenhouse-grown peppers.
References: Purdue University, University of Florida/IFAS Extension, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension.
TYPES, VARIETIES & CUTS
There are five major species of pepper: Capsicum annuum, Capsicum baccatum, Capsicum chinense, Capsicum frutescens, and Capsicum pubescens.
Capsicum annuum, an annual shrub belonging to the nightshade family, is the most cultivated and familiar. This group includes many common varieties such as Anaheim, cayenne, jalapeño, poblano, serrano, Thai, and the ever-popular bell peppers.
Bell peppers come in a range of colors (green, red, orange, yellow, purple, and brown) and sugar content increases as they ripen, hence being called ‘sweet’ peppers. Most begin as green peppers, which if harvested as green, have a more bitter flavor than other colors.
If left to ripen longer, they will turn various hues—from yellow to brown to orange to red—and rise in sweetness, though the longer they ripen the higher the incidence of damage from disease or pests. Keeping fruit on plants longer also reduces yields.
Newer bell cultivars can produce multiple colors from the outset, which will lighten or darken depending on type as they mature. Popular varieties include Alladin, Alliance, Bell Boy, Big Bell, Brigadier, California Wonder, Camelot, Crusader, Gatorbelle, Golden Bell, Islander, Lady Bell, Murango, Orange Blaze, Polaris, Rainbow, Stiletto, Summer Sweet, Sweet Chocolate, and Yolo Wonder.
Capsicum baccatum is a type of chile pepper called aji in South America, often used as seasoning in salsa and dried powders.
Capsicum chinense, sometimes called the yellow lantern chile, includes habañero and Scotch bonnet varieties.
Capsicum frutescens is also considered part of the Capsicum annuum family and includes only a few varieties, such as the Tabasco and Birdseye chile pepper.
Capsicum pubescens, known as rocoto in South America, is also used in salsas. It can be found growing in tropical, mountainous regions and is difficult to cultivate in the United States.
References: Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, Cornell University, Purdue University, UC Davis Postharvest Technology Center, University of Arizona, University of Vermont, USDA.