Herbs for Health: Cayenne

This spicy pepper is more beneficial than you would think.

| October/November 1999

Native peoples of Mexico and Central and South America have used hot peppers for at least 9,000 years, while those living in the present United States started cultivating them at least 5,000 years ago. But until Christopher Columbus returned from the New World in 1493 bearing chiles, Europeans had never felt

Today, cayenne and its relatives are believed to be the most widely consumed spice in the world. More than 2 million acres are devoted to pepper production, and more than 25 percent of the world’s population consume peppers every day.

What is cayenne?

At least 1,700 varieties of peppers have been identified. All belong to the genus Capsicum of the nightshade family (Solana­ceae), whose many members also include tomatoes, eggplants, and potatoes. Bell peppers, pimento, paprika, and cayenne peppers all belong to C. annuum, one of the most diverse cultivated plant species and the source of most peppers grown commercially and in home gardens. Tabasco peppers, grown commercially in the Gulf states and New Mexico, are a different species, C. frutescens. Other domesticated species include C. chinense, (from the Amazon region, not China) and C. pubescens and C. baccatum, from the Andes.

Cayenne belongs to C. annuum var. annuum Longum group. The fruits of the Longum group typically are long, narrow, tapering, and pendent. Up to a foot long and as wide as 13/4 ­inches at the top, cayenne contains up to 1.5 percent pungent principles composed mainly of ­capsaicin. In reference to its pungency, the word “cayenne” is derived from a Greek word meaning “to bite.”

Early years in the Old World

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