Peppers, part of the Solanaceae family, are available in both sweet and hot (chili 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. Both California and Florida lead pepper production in the United States, with the ability to fulfill demand year-round.
References: Purdue University, University of Florida/IFAS Extension.
TYPES, VARIETIES & CUTS
There are five major species of pepper. 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, Jalapeno, 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.
Capsicum baccatum, a type of chili pepper, is called Aji in South America and often used as seasoning in many salsas and dried powders. Varieties include Aji Amarillo, Aji Colorado, Aji Andean, and Lemon Drop. Capsicum chinense, sometimes called the “Yellow Lantern Chili,” includes the popular Habanero and Scotch Bonnet varieties. These peppers are ranked high on the Scoville Heat Unit scale, a measurement of pungency. The hottest known peppers in the world are the Carolina Reaper and Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, both over two million on the Scoville scale (the Bhut Jolokia or “Ghost Pepper” has fallen to seventh place worldwide). One of the hotter peppers, Capsicum frutescens, is sometimes considered part of the Capsicum annuum family, and includes only a few varieties such as the Tabasco pepper and Birdseye Chili pepper.
Originating in Bolivia, Capsicum pubescens is known as Rocoto in South American countries and is often used in salsas. It can be found growing in mountainous regions in tropical countries and is recognizable by its purple flowers and dark-colored seeds. Due to the need for longer growing seasons, these peppers are difficult to cultivate in the United States.
References: Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, Cornell University, Purdue University, UC Davis Postharvest Technology website, USDA.