Louisianans have appreciated the enjoyable qualities of spicy foods for generations. The fire in Louisiana cooking is provided primarily by the use of hot peppers or products made from them like red pepper and hot sauce. A backyard garden wouldn’t be complete without a few pepper plants – hot and sweet – to pick from.
The pepper is native to the tropics of Central and South America and has probably been cultivated for thousands of years. When Columbus reached the Caribbean, he tasted a vegetable being grown by the native population. Its sharp taste reminded him of the familiar black pepper, so he called the new plant “pepper,” as we do today. Columbus, however, was no botanist and was mistaken. The plant was not even related to black pepper – Piper nigrum – but belongs to an entirely different genus – Capsicum.
From their America origins, peppers were spread to Europe, Africa, India and Asia and became an important part of many regional cuisines. They are a member of the solanaceae or nightshade family, which makes them relatives of the tomato, potato, tobacco, eggplant and petunia.
Peppers may be classified as sweet, mild or hot. The degree of heat is related to the amount of capsaicin in the fruit. This chemical is concentrated in the pepper pod where the seeds are attached and in the veins of the inner wall. Peppers are at the peak of their hotness when fully ripe.
Various peppers are classified as follows:
•Sweet: sweet bells, pimento, sweet banana and Gypsy.
•Mild: Mexi-Bell, cherry, NuMex Big Jim, Anaheim, ancho, pasilla, espanola and cascabell.
•Hot: jalapeno, mirasol, Hungarian wax (hot banana), serrano, cayenne and tabasco.
•Very hot: chiltepin, Thai, habanero, Scotch bonnet.
Sweet bell peppers have a blocky shape with three or four lobes on the bottom.
Many pepper varieties are attractive enough to use as ornamentals in the landscape as well as in the vegetable garden.
The fruit of ornamental peppers is perfectly edible, although generally quite hot.