A BRIEF HISTORY OF CHILI PEPPERS
With winter drawing to a close and spring rapidly approaching the time has come to select our plants for the season. If you are gardening just about anywhere there is a good chance that you will be planting some variety of chili pepper, whether they be mild bell peppers, fiery habaneros, or more exotic cultivars. Despite the dramatic differences in flavor and spiciness all of these varieties and more share a common history and lineage.
Chili peppers were originally domesticated over 6,000 years by Nahuatl-speaking peoples in what is today Mexico, and their cultivation quickly spread throughout Central and South America where many new varieties were produced, eventually becoming a staple in the cuisine of these regions as well as being used medicinally. Following the initiation of European colonization of the Americas after the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the West Indies, a period of cultural exchange generously referred to as “the Columbian exchange” ensued. Usage of chili peppers spread to the far corners of the globe, with local growers developing new cultivars to achieve desired flavor, heat, or hardiness.
Of course now these varieties seem inseparable from the culinary traditions in which they arose — is it possible to imagine the hearty goulash of Eastern Europe without paprika, or the searing curries of South and Southeast Asia without thai chilis? Nonetheless, all of these varieties belong to the same Capsicum genus, and most even to the same species of Capsicum annuum.
Famously, chili plants are known to gardeners for their ability to cross-pollinate with nearly any other variety of nearby chili, much to the annoyance of would-be home seed gatherers. Yet this relative pollen “promiscuity” has been responsible for the enormous range in chilis that have emerged both in the centuries since the arrival of Columbus in the Americas and the millennia since their original domestication in Mexico. This tradition of experimenting with admixture to create new type continues today with a number of dedicated professionals and hobbyists alike breeding new types to achieve new colors, flavors, or heights of piquancy. Some growers even selectively breed plants for purely ornamental purposes, forgoing culinary tradition altogether.
The history of chilis and their use by humans is an interesting case study into the relationship that people enter into with the plants that they domesticate and utilize,
as well as the relationships forged between people or groups of people by their shared usage of these crops. The domestication of crops is a small example of the human drive to control our environment in order to secure our needs and achieve our wants, an important lesson worth learning for any gardener.