PEPPERS. Pepper plants were among the first plants to be domesticated by New World peoples. Although the genus Capsicum originated somewhere in central South America, it had spread throughout most of that continent, Central America, and the Caribbean by the time of European conquest of the New World, and at least four species had been domesticated. Christopher Columbus can be credited with the discovery of this New World spice, which he encountered on his first voyage in 1492. Though the primary purpose of his expedition was to find a direct route to the rich spice lands of the East Indies and the most desired spice, black pepper, black pepper is not a real pepper but a member of the genus Piper, a woody vine native to India. It is not related to Capsicum, a perennial shrub that was unknown before Columbus's voyage of discovery. Because he was searching for the Indies, Columbus named the Caribbean Islands he found the Indies, and the pungent spice used by the natives he named pepper (pimiento); the resulting confusion persists. The spice was readily accepted by the Spanish, who carried it back to the Iberian peninsula. Portuguese and Spanish vessels carried it over the trade routes of the world. So popular was it that within fifty years of the discovery of the New World it had become virtually universal and was for a long time erroneously believed to have originated in India or Malaysia.
All the red and green peppers in the world belong to the genus Capsicum. Although there are five domesticated species, only C. annuum annuum is commercially important throughout the world. Texas ranks third in pepper production in the United States. The most common types grown in the state are bell, jalapeño, and long green or red chile. Commercial pepper production in Texas centers in the lower Rio Grande valley, El Paso, and the High Plains. The pungent principle in peppers is primarily the alkaloid capsaicin, a strong irritant that produces a perceptible warmth even when one part is mixed in a million parts of water. All wild peppers are hot; sweet peppers are a result of domestication. The only wild pepper in Texas is the tiny, ovoid, burning chilipitín (C. annuum aviculare). These fiery fruits are a favorite of the northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), the state bird of Texas. Besides being used as a spice, peppers are consumed as vegetables and condiments and are used medicinally. They are especially rich in vitamins C and A. Peppers are also utilized as a coloring agent by the food and cosmetics industries, and the extractable oleoresin is an ingredient in numerous commercial products, such as repellents and liniments. Peppers are also used in landscape and floral design and play a part in rituals, magic, and folklore. Probably no other economic plant in the world is put to more varied uses. See also CHILTIPIN CREEK (SAN PATRICIO COUNTY).
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Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.