Chilli peppers (Capsicum species) are members of the Solanaceae (Nightshade) family, along with tomatoes, eggplants and potatoes. They are native to the warm climates of South America and Central America, and they’re perennial plants in tropical and subtropical climates, but are grown as warm season annual plants in the cooler temperate climates as they don’t tolerate the cold.
Chillies have become a very important spice worldwide due to their spicy hot flavour which is primarily produced by the chemical compound capsaicin.
There are five major domesticated chilli species, each with their own identifying characteristics and unique properties:
- Capsicum annuum
- Capsicum baccatum
- Capsicum chinense
- Capsicum frutescens
- Capsicum pubescens
Let’s look at each in turn and see what’s special about each of these five chilli species!
The most widely grown chillies are from the Capsicum annuum species, such as the Jalapeno, Paprika, Cayenne and Serrano peppers. The sweet peppers, also know as bell peppers or sweet capsicums, which aren’t hot, are also part this group. They’re the most diverse in shape, colour and heat rating.
The species name annuum means ‘annual’ even though most chilli species are perennial in their native regions. As we mentioned, earlier in cooler climates they grow as annuals because cannot tolerate the cold.
The distinguishing feature of this species is that flowers are produced singly, not it groups or clusters, and the filaments which support the anthers are not purple. The corolla (flower petals) are milky white (but sometimes purple), the fruit flesh is usually firm (though it may be soft in certain varieties),and the seeds are straw-coloured.
In the picture of the Zimbabwe Bird’s Eye chilli flowers shown above for example, we see single flowers which have white filaments (the long parts coming from the centre of the flower with the little bumps on the ends). This plant is compact in form, only growing to 30cm, making it ideal to grow in a container indoors.
The hottest chilli varieties, such as the Scotch Bonnet, Habanero and the infamous Bhut Jolokia ‘Ghost chilli’ (which the Indian government uses to make control crowd agents), are Capsicum chinense species.
Despite the botanical name, ‘chinense’, meaning ‘from China’, they’re not native to China at all, but native to Central America, the Caribbean Islands and the Yucatan region of Mexico. They were mistakenly named by an early botanist who thought they were from China, and the species name has stayed ever since.
Even though these chillies vary widely in heat level, flavour and size, what distinguishes these chillies in terms of taste is their intense spiciness combined with a fruity aroma. With this species the flowers appear in pairs or clusters (two or more flowers at each node), but occasionally flowers may be solitary, appearing singly. The corolla (flower petals) are greenish-white (sometimes milky white or purple), without any diffuse spots at base of each petal, the fruit flesh is firm and seeds are straw-coloured. The plants are compact, with multiple stems and an erect habit. Leave are pale to medium green, and usually large (up to 15cm long x 10cm wide) and ovate in shape. A distinguishing trait of the Capsicum chinense species is that the leaves are usually crinkled.
These plants are very productive, but need plenty of warmth to get started.
The Capsicum frutescens species includes varieties such as the Tabasco, Thai and Chenzo chillies. These chillies are esteemed for their dry, smoky flavour. The species is well known because of the Tabasco cultivar used to make Tabasco sauce.
The botanical species name ‘frutescens’ means bushy, shrubby, or twiggy. These plants are ideal for growing in containers, and perfect for growing indoors, as they are usually compact in form with with short stubby growth, and they flower heavily in clusters, making them very productive. Plants tend to need a long growing season.
This species is of the easiest to identify – the flowers and chilli pods are produced in groups or clusters, the pods are on the smaller side and are are usually a conical ellipse shape, with the stems growing fairly vertically and weeping down at the tips where the fruit is borne. without any diffuse spots at base of each petal, The corolla (flower petals) are greenish-white, without any diffuse spots at base of each petal, fruit flesh is usually soft, and the seeds are straw-coloured.
The picture of the Chenzo chilli above shows these characteristics.
The Capsicum baccatum species are the Peruvian chillies, and mainly consists of the South American Aji chilli varieties, such as Aji amarillo, Aji panca, Lemon Drop and Bishop’s Crown. This species are renowned for their characteristic smoky-fruity flavour that no other chilli species can reproduce. The heat range of the chilli pods can range from mild to very hot, but even at the hot end of the range, there is still a mild sweet fruity taste which imparts a unique flavour.
The botanical species name ‘baccatum’ means ‘berry-like’ , because the chilli pods are more berry-shaped than other chillies, their shape being smallish and squat, wider than they are long, averaging 2.5-5cm (1”-2”) long x 5-7.5cm (2”-3”) wide, producing colourful orange, yellow and red wrinkled pods when mature. The plants are generally tall growing with an open habit, growing around 1.2-1.5m (4’-5’) high and 1m (3’) wide).
This species is easily identified by its flowers, the corolla (flower petals) are white or greenish-white, with diffuse yellow or tan spots at base of the petals on either side of mid-vein, and the anthers are white but turn brownish-yellow with age. The fruit flesh is firm and seeds are straw-coloured.
The Capsicum pubescens species, which includes the Rocoto and Manzano pepper, originate from the mountainous regions the Andes, which means they are cold tolerant and can grow in cooler climates, growing as perennial in temperate climates.
The species name ‘Pubescens’ means ‘hairy’, and this plant does have hairy dark green leaves, along with purple flowers and chilli pods which contain black seeds, making it very easy to identify.
Manzano chilli flower is a distinct purple colour with purple filaments and white anther, the plant also has furry leaves. Yellow nectar spots are visible in the lower white-coloured portion of each petal.
The plant form can vary from a compact form around 60cm (2’) high to an erect habit (which is sometimes sprawling and vine like) growing up to 2.4m (8’) high. Quite interestingly, this species of chilli cannot cross pollinate with the other domesticated species.
The flower corolla (petals) are purple (occasionally with white margins at the base of the petals), without diffuse spots at base of the petals. A drop of yellow nectar may accumulate at the base of the petal to look like a corolla spot, but the drop of golden liquid is easily distinguished from a marking. Flowers grow either singly or in pairs, but may grow in clusters of four, though this is uncommon.
The chilli pods are pear or apple shaped, and as they ripen they change from green to purple, then finally becoming a red or yellow colour. These chillies are unique in that they’re quite fleshy and juicy, with thick walls, much more like a smaller sweet pepper (capsicum).
The Rocoto Tree chilli pictured below produced red pods prolifically all year round in a temperate climate, and grows to around 2m (6’) tall. This one is growing in a corner against a north facing wall (facing the midday sun in the southern hemisphere) and is around ten years old. They can be grown from cuttings or from seed in springtime.
Rocoto Manzano tree chilli, fruiting prolifically mid-winter in temperate Melbourne, Australia
The Manzano hedging chilli pictured below grows up to 1m (3’) high, and has been flowering through autumn and ripening chillies in winter. This plant is planted out in the open in a garden bed with vegies and other plants, and has coped with cold weather perfectly well.