The Famous Five

Species specific

The exact number of pepper varieties in existence is impossible to determine. There are certainly thousands of them, with plant breeders and natural crossing guaranteeing a constant supply of new ones.

Despite these huge numbers, plant taxonomists have managed to arrange peppers into a workable classification system that makes them somewhat easier to understand and appreciate. They all belong to the genus Capsicum, which in turn is divided into more than 20 species, five of which have been domesticated. The five domesticated species are distinguished from each other by differences in their physical characteristics, including flower colour and arrangement on the stems:

Capsicum annuum includes sweet peppers and most of the more common chillies, including the cayenne types found in shops and supermarkets. Conspicuously diverse, the C. annuums are probably the most popular of the domesticated species, both in the garden and the kitchen. The flowers are usually borne singly along the stem, and their petals are most often white, though they can sometimes be purple, or white with a purple fringe.

Some of the most notorious peppers are varieties of C. chinense. Generically known as habaneros, they have a well-earned reputation as being extremely hot, and they include the hottest chillies ever measured, such as the Trinidad Scorpion, Dorset Naga and Bhut Jolokia. There are exceptions, however, and some, such as Apricot, have little or no heat at all. Regardless of their heat level, habaneros usually have an appealing fruity aroma that goes well with citrus-based salads and sorbets.

Habanero flowers are usually a whitish green, and are arranged in bunches of two or more along the stem. The fruit usually have an annular constriction located between the peduncle (the fruit stalk) and the calyx (the small, leafy structures between the peduncle and fruit). The plants tend to be slow growers, needing a long, hot season to produce fruit.

Called locoto or rocoto in South America, C. pubescens is recognised by its hairy leaves and dark purple seeds and flowers. The fruit are hot, thick-fleshed and either round or pear-shaped.

C. baccatum is known as aji throughout South America (though in Britain not all chilli called “aji” are C. baccatum). Their flowers have distinctive brown or green spots on the petals. The fruit tend to be hot ­– though there are some exceptions to this – and their size and shape can vary considerably.

The last, but certainly not the least, of the domesticated species is C. frutescens. Developing from greenish flowers borne singly (or sometimes in pairs), the fruit tend to be hot and quite small. The species’ claim to fame lies with the Tabasco variety, the main ingredient in the famous hot sauce from Louisiana.