Gardening Articles: Edibles :: Vegetables

A Brief History of Peppers

by National Gardening Association Editors

Peppers make the garden brighter. The glistening greens of the leaves and the rainbow of colors of the ripening peppers - red, yellow, orange, green, brown or purple - all mark the rows where peppers are growing. They're so striking, you'll probably want to plant peppers in a spot where they can easily be seen and appreciated by visitors. The attractive plants make everything around them look better, healthier, and tastier.

A Taste of Peppers

Besides their appearance, there's another reward from peppers: They're delicious. Sweet bell peppers go well with just about anything and are wonderful eaten right out of the garden, while the hotter varieties spice up many recipes. Some pepper varieties add color as well as flavor: pimiento strips in stuffed olives or stuffed eggs with a dusting of paprika on top, for example. (Paprika is made from dried peppers.) Stuffed peppers, pickled peppers, fried peppers - peppers fit in, deliciously, everywhere.

Where it Began

Prehistoric remains in Peru show that peppers existed then, and they were cultivated in Central and South America in very early times. Columbus brought them to Europe in 1493, and they were quickly adopted and cultivated. In fact, it was the Europeans that gave peppers their name. The only pepper they had known until that time was the black and white spice we still sprinkle out of our pepper shakers. When Columbus brought dried peppers back from the West Indies, Europeans said the fruit was "hotter than the pepper of the Caucasus," the familiar table spice. The name "pepper" stuck, and we've been using it ever since.

In spite of sharing the same name, our table pepper and the sweet and hot peppers we grow are not related. The black and white pepper we grind is the seeds of the plant, Piper nigrum. Our garden peppers belong to the species Capsicum. Capsicum annuum, one group of the Capsicum species, accounts for most of the varieties grown in this country. Exceptions include the Tabasco and Habanero peppers, which belong to other species.

Cells and Lobes

If you cut open a pepper crosswise near the stem, you'll notice thin walls that divide the pepper into sections. These sections are called the lobes, or cells. Most seed companies describe a well-shaped sweet bell pepper as being "blocky." The blocky shape comes from this division of the pepper into lobes, and a good, blocky pepper will have three or four lobes. The shape of blocky peppers makes them great for stuffing, slicing into pepper rings and general all-around use.

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