But we like them too.
There are just too many interesting things about Capsicum to squeeze into one post! First of all, they are not actually related to pepper. They are in the Solanaceae family, home to tomatoes, tomatillos, potatoes, and eggplants, which is basically a recipe for delicious. Chiles are native to Central and South America. Archeological evidence from Ecuador suggests they were first domesticated more than 6000 years ago. With the conquest of the New World, Europeans spread chiles all over the world. They have since been enthusiastically incorporated into diverse cuisines. Can you imagine Thai cuisine before the use of chiles? Or South Indian?
Five species have been domesticated, and artificial selection has resulted in many, many cultivars. To further fill your brain with names, many peppers are known by multiple names, depending on whether they are being used green, fresh, roasted, or dried. For example, jalapenos, from C. annuum, are called chipotles if they have been dried and smoked. Poblanos, also C. annuum, become ancho or mulato when dried.
The heat of a chile is measured in Scoville Heat Units – a scale based originally on how much an extract of the chile must be diluted before the heat is undetectable by a taster. Now the level of heat is calculated from the amount of capsaicin present (the compound which tastes hot to us). But it’s easier to understand what it means that a habanero (C. chinense) at up to 350,000 scoville units, must be diluted 350,000 times before it’s heat is undetectable. Bell peppers (C. annuum) have a scoville rating of zero, while the hottest chile, the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion (C.chinense) , weighs in at 2 million. Pure capsaicin is a whooping 16 million.
Each variety of chile can have a range of heat – the environment can have a strong effect on how much capsaicin a chile produces, and this response can be both plastic (that is, changing within an organism in response to environment) and genetic. In a wild chile species, the amount of capsaicin has been found to vary with available moisture. Wet environments encourage fungal pathogens, which capsaicin can fend off from damaging delicate seeds. Dry environments make capsaicin too expensive for the plant to produce, without the presence of the fungal pathogen, and so mild variants dominate populations.
Haak, D.C., McGinnis, L.A., Levey, D.J. & Tewksbury, J.J. (2012). Why Are Not All Chilies Hot? A Trade-Off Limits Pungency.
Proc. R. Soc. B, 279, 2012-2017 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2011.2091