By Audrey Stallsmith
I’m red pepper in a shaker,
Bread that’s waitin’ for the baker.
Tennessee Williams--"Sugar in the Cane"
The week before Mother’s Day, I generally am dispatched to a greenhouse to buy potted flowers for the mothers in our small country church. While there, I often purchase a few pepper plants for my own mother as well. In our climate, such seedlings need a good head start to produce well.
Although we consider them annuals, they actually can be perennial shrubs in their native Central and South America. Their fruits, also known as chiles, have been part of the native cuisine in those parts since about 7500 B.C.
Christopher Columbus, you may recall, stumbled across Central America when he actually was looking for a new spice route to India. So he was delighted to find piquant “berries” there, which he called red peppers (Capsicum annuum), though they aren’t related to the black pepper (Piper nigrum) grown in India.
However, once he sent seeds of the new plants back to Europe, their fruits did make a less expensive substitute for the real thing.
Not being fond of highly spiced foods, my own family prefers mild types such as bell peppers. Those were first mentioned in the 1600s by pirate physician Lionel Wafer, who discovered them in Panama after an accident forced him to remain with the Cuna Indians there for several months. Apparently a marooned pirate must pass the time somehow, and Wafer did so by studying local flora and fauna.
Even if you don’t use cayenne in cooking, it’s a good idea to keep a bottle of that red pepper on hand for gardening emergencies. I sprinkle it on seedlings which seem to be falling prey to rabbits and groundhogs, as the “burn” discourages such varmints from further chowing down on my greenery.
Being members of the nightshade family, peppers can nod to many of their relatives--including tomatoes, potatoes, and petunias—in your garden. All peppers are good for you, being high in Vitamin C, with the ruddier varieties being rich in Vitamin A too. Cayenne also is widely used in pharmaceutical products.
For the relief of arthritis, shingles pain, or burning foot syndrome, it usually is applied externally via creams which contain it. However, John Heinerman recommends--in Heinerman's Encyclopedia of Fruits, Vegetables, and Herbs--that persons suffering from chronic arthritis pain try taking cayenne capsules. He warns that such consumption of the pepper will cause a temporary increase in pain at first, but eventually will block pain signals.
Cayenne reportedly also lowers blood sugar and cholesterol, improves digestion, and increases energy to make it a literal pepper-upper! Although Walter Savage Landor's "Epistle to Byron" advises that you not "fancy you can cure a leper with poultices of cayenne pepper," apparently you can cure almost anyone else with it!
Because it is a blood thinner, however, you should avoid it if you already are taking other blood thinners. Michael Castleman's The Healing Herbs warns that cayenne can cause unpleasant side effects in some people, including "stomach upset, diarrhea, or burning during bowel movements."
If you accidentally eat a hot pepper which leaves your throat "aflame," try drinking milk—preferably whole milk. The fat in it should dissolve the pepper’s capsaicin to alleviate the burning sensation.
Some gardeners believe that pepper plants will grow better if matches are buried beneath them. I investigated that claim for one of my eHow articles, which you can find at the following link:
Even if you don’t want to raise peppers for their fruits, many of the more unusually colored varieties make showy ornamentals as well. One of my SFGate articles offers hints on how to identify the one you have.
Peppers are, we can conclude, another reason we should be grateful to Columbus. After discovering a new world, he spiced up the lives of the people in the old one, too!
The Capsicum annuum illustration is from Flora de Filipinas by M. Blanco, courtesy of plantillustrations.org.