Herbs for Health: Peppers Pungent Medicine

| February/March 1996


Liberty Hyde Bailey, the father of modern horticultural science, once said that there is only one constant factor in the plant kingdom—endless variation. If there is one plant group that embodies this concept of endless diversity, it is the New World peppers: about twenty species and hundreds of varieties in the genus Capsicum. In their native habitat of tropical America, capsicums are perennial and woody, growing to 7 feet tall; in American gardens, where they are grown as annuals, their maximum height is closer to 3 feet.

Five species had already been domesticated in Latin America centuries before the arrival of Columbus: C. frutescens, C. annuum, C. chinense (native to the Amazon region despite its name), C. pubescens, and C. baccatum. The last two are pungent Andean species, and C. chinense is extremely pungent and popular in the West Indies. Tabasco peppers, grown commercially in the Gulf states and New Mexico, belong to C. frutescens. C. annuum is the source of the vast majority of peppers grown commercially or in gardens. Mild, large-fruited types include paprika, pimento, and bell peppers; pungent kinds include cayenne, jalapeño, and serrano, to name a few.

Historical Medicinal Uses

While the culinary uses of peppers are well known and highly appreciated, their medicinal uses are no less enticing. The ancient Mayans used cayenne to treat gum sores and inflammations. By the mid–sixteenth century, Europeans were using capsicum as a local stimulant, gargle, and counterirritant liniment. These “guinea peppers” were also taken to “prevent flatulence from vegetable food, and have a warm and kindly effect in the stomach, possessing all the virtues of the oriental spices, without producing complaints of the head which the latter are apt to occasion,” as Robert John Thorton wrote in his Family Herbal (1814).

In North America, cayenne remained principally a culinary herb until it was catapulted into popularity as a home remedy by the self-styled physician Samuel Thomson (1769–1843), who used cayenne to “produce a strong heat in the body” and to restore digestive powers. “A teaspoonful of Cayenne may be taken in a tumbler of cider and is much better than ardent spirits,” he proclaimed. “There is scarce any preparation of medicine that I make use of, in which I do not put some of this article.”

Thomson’s work influenced the teachings of John Christopher, a popular promoter of herbs during the 1970s. Of cayenne, Christopher wrote in his School of Natural Healing (1976), “This herb . . . feeds the necessary elements into the cell structure of the arteries, veins and capillaries so that these regain the elasticity of youth again, and the blood pressure adjusts itself to normal.”

While herbalists may value cayenne for its reputed ability to stimulate the gastrointestinal system, expel gas from the alimentary canal, and improve blood pressure and circulation, no positive effects on the digestive system, blood pressure, or circulation have been scientifically established. In Germany, therefore, products containing cayenne are not allowed to carry therapeutic claims for these conditions.

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