Bell Pepper, Capsicum annuum- The Only ‘Sweet’ Pepper!

Bell pepper, Capsicum annuum © Aislinn Adams

Bell Pepper, Capsicum annuum- a Central and South American native.

Continuing my theme of fruit and vegetables I post an illustration of Bell pepper, Capsicum annuum, originally created for the “Digging In” gardening column of the Washington Post. Both hot and mild peppers come from the species Capsicum annuum. Inadvertently I have chosen another species native to Central and South America, like the tomato posted in my last blog, and although we are inclined to think of bell pepper as a vegetable, like the tomato it too is a fruit.

Cultivated in ancient times.

Capsicum annuum has been in cultivation for millennia in Central and South America. According to Roger Phillips and Martin Rix in their book “Vegetables” from The Garden Plant Series, pepper seeds were found in archaeological deposits in Tehuacan, Mexico as early as 7000 BCE and the earliest records of peppers in cultivation are from about 2000 years later.

Christopher Columbus, naming ‘pepper’ and expensive condiments!

Unlike the tomato, when peppers were introduced into Europe by Chrisopher Columbus in 1493 they were accepted quickly as a food plant. Columbus is also credited with giving them the name ‘pepper’. It is most likely that it was the hot type that he brought back first not the sweet, bell pepper. At the time any species with a hot, pungent taste was called pepper after the true pepper, Piper nigrum. True pepper, a native of southern India, was a prized condiment in Europe then and very expensive.  Europeans quickly learned to grind the ‘hot’ pepper species to a powder and use it as a cheaper substitute to true pepper.

Bell pepper and recessive genes!

Bell pepper, on the other hand, is the only member of the Capsicum family of peppers that does not produce capsaicin, the chemical that causes that strong, burning sensation when eaten. This is due to a recessive gene that eliminates capsaicin from the bell pepper, thus making it ‘sweet’. Thanks to this recessive gene we can all enjoy the tangy, sweet taste of bell peppers without having to run for the tissues.

Aislinn Adams

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