Chile Peppers

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Volume 4 (Number 1) Spring 1995
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The Wayne's Word Chile Pepper Edition:

Chile Peppers, Black Peppers, Kava Kava & Pepper Trees

© W.P. Armstrong (Updated 18 February 2012)

Capsicum frutescens
Fascinating Trivia Questions:

  • Does Pepper Spray Really Work?
  • Why Do Hot Chile Peppers Burn You Twice?
  • Things Not To Do With A Pepper Spray Can!
  • Which Chile Peppers Are The Most Painful?
  • Are Black Peppers Related To Chile Peppers?
  • Was Columbus Searching For Chile Peppers?      
  • Did Columbus Know East From West?
In these times of increased muggings, robberies, car-jackings, mountain lion attacks, and general personal insecurity, it is more important than ever to protect yourself. But why waste your time and energy trying to master the martial arts when you can use a proven, effective self defense called "pepper spray." Even when you are old and senile you can still protect yourself with pepper spray. A blast of this powerful mist in the face of a would-be attacker is guaranteed to incapacitate your assailant--at least temporarily. While your attacker is disoriented and writhing in pain, you have a chance to run like hell.

Depending on the brand, pepper sprays generally contain about 18% oil of capsicum from a very hot variety of chile pepper (Capsicum chinense) or a related species. The active ingredient causing the intense burning pain is the alkaloid capsaicin (cap-SAY-sin). So potent is the alkaloid that one millionth of a drop can be detected by the human tongue. Capsaicin is not broken down during the digestion process--this is why you often get burned several hours later after dining on chile peppers. Like other alkaloids in the chemical arsenal of plants, capsaicin may serve to discourage mammalian fruit predators. Botanists believe that birds are immune to the burning sensation of capsaicin, and may serve to disperse the seeds. Capsaicin may prevent hungry mammals from devouring the fruits, so that they can be eaten by fruit-eating birds who are attracted to bright red fruits. Passing through the bird's digestive tract relatively unharmed, the small seeds are dispersed to other favorable regions.

Capsaicin from
Chile Peppers

Like Mace And Tear Gas, Pepper Spray Should Be
Treated As A Serious Weapon And Used With Caution:

  1. Do not use as a soothing heat treatment for the relief of tendinitis.

  2. Do not use as mosquito spray, air freshener or hair spray.

  3. Never get this spray on or near any mucous membranes.

  4. Do not use on soothing hemorrhoidal wipes (in place of witch-hazel oil).

  5. Do not use as an oral antiseptic spray or to soothe a sore throat.

  6. Do not use as an inhaler to clear up sinus congestion or to get high.

  7. Never use on barbecue meat--even if you are out of chile pepper sauce.

  8. Do not test your pepper spray on anyone--not even a friend.

  9. In the event of pressure loss, use bowls of hot chile powder.

Note:  If you accidentally get pepper spray on sensitive mucous
membranes, apply cold water or an ice pack to the afflicted area.

Chile Peppers of the Nightshade Family (Solanaceae)

According to D. Dewitt and P. W. Bosland (Peppers of the World: An Identification Guide, Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, California, 1996), there are 5 species of Capsicum peppers native to the New World: C. pubescens, C. baccatum, C. annuum, C. frutescens and C. chinense. The hottest chile peppers belong the C. chinense group, including the notorious habanero. Although this species is named "chinense," it is not from China. Actually, its center of origin is thought to be the Amazon Basin of South America. If you are interested in the identification and distribution of these marvelous species, please refer to the book by Dewitt and Bosland. It includes beautiful color photos of the numerous varieties of all five species.

Assorted chile peppers at a farm in the Willamette Valley of Oregon.

A field of chile peppers in the fertile soil of Twin Oaks Valley in northern San Diego County.

Cherry peppers are grown in the fertile soil of Twin Oaks Valley in northern San Diego County. They have a delicious flavor and are not hot.

Sweet Peppers: A. Bell Pepper,
B. Sweet Banana, C. Pimento

Bell Peppers

Color variation in bell peppers (Capsicum annuum). In some cultivars the green peppers ripen to a deep red. In other varieties, green peppers ripen to a golden yellow or bright orange.

Cross section of the ripened ovary (fruit ) of a bell pepper (Capsicum annuum) showing three locules (chambers) and axile placentation. The central region where the seeds are attached is the placenta. In hot chile peppers, the placental region contains up to 89 percent of the alkaloid capsaicin. This alkaloid causes a burning sensation when it comes in contact with the sense receptors in your tongue. Capsaicin is produced by a dominant gene. Since bell peppers are homozygous recessive for this trait, they do not produce capsaicin. Depending on the cultivar, green bell peppers ripen into bright shades of yellow, orange and red.

Miniature sterile fruits (carpel-like structures) sometimes develop from the placental walls inside bell peppers. According to to Tiwari et al. (2011), carpelloid structures develop parthenocarpically (without fertilization) from ovule integuments (primordial seed coats). I.e. abnormal ovule primordia (immature seeds) arise from the placenta within bell peppers and are transformed into carpelloid structures. See the following reference for more information:

 Tiwari, A., Vivian-Smith, A., Voorrips, R.E., Habets, M. E.J., Xue, L.B., Offringa, R., and E. Heuvelink. 2011. "Parthenocarpic Potential in Capsicum annuum L. is Enhanced by Carpelloid Structures and Controlled by a Single Recessive Gene." BMC Plant Biology 11:143. Published Online doi: 10.1186/1471-2229-11-143.


A. Bell Pepper
B. Hungarian
     Hot Wax
C. Habanero
D. Jalapeño
E. Cayenne
F. Serrano

Hot Peppers:

A. Anaheim
B. Hungarian Wax
C. Jalapeño
D. Carribean
E. Habanero
F. Cayenne
G. Super Chile
H. Serrano

For serious pepper connoisseurs, there is a simple taste test that measures the tongue-scorching capsaicin content of these fruits. The highest capsaicin concentration is found in the placental region where the seeds are attached. Originally, human laboratory animals were "asked" to taste a series of peppers and rate their hotness. Since veteran pepper eaters tended to be desensitized to the intense heat, the test was performed on people who were not regular pepper eaters. The amount of heat is expressed in Scoville Heat Units (SHUs). Science is ever-changing, and a new quantitative technique called High Performance Liquid Chromatography has been developed to measure the concentration of capsaicin in Scoville Heat Units. Bell peppers have a value of zero because they are homozygous recessive and lack the dominant gene for capsaicin production. Jalapenos and cayenne varieties may vary from 3,500 to 35,000 SHUs, and ripe tabasco peppers flame in at 50,000 SHUs. With values of 200,000 to 300,000, habanero peppers can be absolutely excruciating. A heavy duty pepper spray unit (resembling a small fire extinguisher) sold in Montana for grizzly bear protection has a SHU rating of two million.

Old Chile Pepper SHU Chart Courtesy Of CompuServe Gardening Forum

The World's Hottest Chile Peppers

Bhut Jolokia
According to the 2007 Guninness Book of World Records, the 'Bhut Jolokia' variety of chile pepper grown in the hilly terrain of Assam, India is the hottest chile pepper. Other names for this variety are 'Bih Jolokia', 'Naga Jolokia' and 'Naga Morich.' It has a reported heat index of 1,001,304 Scoville Heat Units (SHU). The Bhut Jolokia is about three times as hot as the average habanero (300,000 SHU). According to The Complete Chile Pepper Book by Dave DeWitt and Paul Bosland (Timber Press, 2010), DNA tests revealed that it belongs to the C. chinense group of chile peppers along with the notorious habanero, but also contains C. frutescens genes as well.

Trinidad Scorpion Butch T
As of March 1, 2011, the world's hottest pepper according to the on-line Guinness World Records is the 'Trinidad Scorpion Butch T' grown by The Chile Factory in Australia. Tests conducted by EML Consulting Service in Morisset, New South Wales revealed a heat index of 1,463,700 SHU. It originated in Trinidad and has a slender pointed apex like a scorpion's stinger. This strain was discovered by Butch Taylor, owner of Zydeco Hot Sauce.

Scorpion Stinger

Records are made to be broken, and this is certainly the case with chile peppers. As of February 10, 2012, the world's record for the hottest pepper is the 'Moruga Scorpion' ('Moruga Scorpion' Pepper is the World's Hottest Chile Pepper at more than 2 million Scoville Heat Units, Gregory Reeves, Danise Coon & Paul Bosland, Department of Plant & Environmental Sciences at New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, New Mexico 88003). The mean SHU was 1,207,764, with the highest value at 2,009,231. According to Guinness World Records (2013), the hottest chile pepper is the "Carolina Reaper" with an average SHU value of 1,569,300 and high SHU of 2,200.000! Since the "hotness" of chile peppers may be affected by environmental conditions (incl. soil, nutrients, water, temperature, etc.), competing strains should ideally be grown under identical conditions and tested in the same lab.

  New Mexico State University: Measuring Chile Pepper Heat  

Above chart from Reeves, Coon & Bosland, 2012.

Two of the world's hottest chile peppers: A. Bhut Jolokia from India. B. Moruga Scorpion, a cultivar (landrace) of Trinidad Scorpions similar to the Butch T.

Moruga Scorpion, a cultivar (land race) of Trinidad Scorpions similar to the Butch T.

The current (May 2016) hottest chile pepper listed by Wikipedia and the Guinness Book of World Records is the "Carolina Reaper" (High Heat: 2.2 million SHU). This is reportedly a hybrid cultivar originating from a cross between the ghost pepper (Bhut Jolokia) and red habanero.

Wayne's FacebookTrivia Note #505 (17 April 2018)

Note: Google searches in May 2019 indicate that this record still applies in 2019

Tricked By Sense Receptors: When the alkaloid capsaicin from chili peppers binds with sense receptors in your tongue, the brain interprets this signal as hot, even though the chile pepper temperature is not physically hot. You can also get "burned" again when capsaicin reaches the rectum. Recent medical literature reveals other problems from overindulging on superhot chili peppers. More About Chile Peppers

Larva of hawkmoth (Manduca sexta) feeding on foliage and stems of the mild 'Anaheim' chile pepper (Capsicum chilense), a member of the nightshade family (Solanaceae) along with tomatoes.

Hotness of a chile pepper can vary depending on the environmental conditions under which the specimen grew and how the laboratory test was conducted. The capsaicin (capsaicinoid) content of a chile pepper is determined using High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC). The HPLC data is converted from parts per million (ppm) or milligrams per kilogram (mg/kg) to Scoville Heat Units (SHU) by multiplying it by 16. Pure capsaicin was defined as 16 million SHU, although it was originally defined as 15 million. A multiplier of 15 instead of 16 will reduce the SHU rating by 6.25 percent. For example, a ground-up pepper sample that is 1000 ppm capsaicin will have a hotness rating of 16,000 SHU. Using 15 as your multiplier reduces the SHU rating by 1000. It is important for different laboratories to be consistent in their analyses and use the same multiplier. HPLC should be calibrated first using a known concentration of capsaicin solution. The ground up chile fruit (seeds, pericarp and placenta) should be carefully weighed and prepared the same way. Most of the capsaicin is in the placental region where the seeds are attached, so it is imperative to indicate exactly which part of the chile is ground up for testing. Grinding up only the placental region, and not the entire pepper, will give a higher SHU rating. Until unbiased replicated experiments have been conducted by independent labs, conclusions on the hottest chile pepper are open for discussion.

Cross section of the ripened ovary (fruit) of a habanero pepper (Capsicum chinense) showing three locules (chambers) and axile placentation. The central region (outlined in blue) where the seeds are attached is the placenta. In hot chile peppers, the placental region is where most of the capsaicin is located. This alkaloid causes a burning sensation when it comes in contact with the sense receptors in your tongue. Depending on the reference, this pepper may be only 3 or 4 on the Scoville Heat Scale (300,000), but I can personally testify that it can be excruciating. I once cut up several habanero peppers in a biology lecture. Several students doubted the potent capsaicin content of the placenta region but soon became believers when their foreheads beaded up with perspiration. During the break I used a restroom and inadvertantly transferred some capsaicin molecules to my private parts loaded with sense receptors. I was in absolute misery when I returned to the classroom. I soon realized that capsaicin does not wash off that well with soap and water!

According to Dr. Paul Bosland, director of the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University (Personal Communication, 2011), the heat levels of a single plant can be up to 78 percent higher than the average for the field in which it was grown. Thus, one single plant may be a record setter for that year and location, but it does not prove the variety as a whole is record setting. While a single pumpkin can be crowned "the biggest" in pumpkin size contests, should a single fruit of a very hot Capsicum variety deserve to be listed as a record breaker? In order to conduct a scientifically valid test to determine the hottest chile pepper variety, an ample seed sample must be planted in replicated trials that include the current hottest variety and appropriate controls. A random sample of fruit from the replicated varieties should then be tested at an independent legitimate testing facility. The variety with the statistically higher heat level could then be considered as the reigning hottest variety. Single fruits would not qualify, nor would samples without appropriate comparisons. If the 'Bhut Jolokia' had also been growing in the Butch T field, might it have been hotter than 1,463,700 SHU? Only a controlled scientific test would give us the "true" answer.

World's Largest Pumpkin Is Also A Controversial Record

The world's largest pumpkin is also controversial. It really depends on how the pumpkins are weighed to obtain the true net weight (gross weight minus tare weight). It is also important to determine if the record-breaker is truly a pumpkin and not a giant squash! I was once a member of the World Pumpkin Confederation and I trusted their records. The following is from my Botanical Record-Breakers page on Wayne's Word:

According to Cucurbits, the official newsletter of the World Pumpkin Confederation, a 1993 record-breaking pumpkin weighed in at 836 pounds and a giant squash tipped the scales at just over 700 pounds. One year later at the "gourd olympics" in Port Elgin, Ontario, the reign of the pumpkin was broken by a 900 pound squash. There have been other unofficial records for pumpkins exceeding 900 pounds. To enter your prize pumpkin in the official World Pumpkin Confederation Annual Weigh-Off, it must be cream-yellow to orange; if it is green to gray or mottled in color it must be entered as a squash. Many pumpkins are varieties of Cucurbita pepo, although the largest pumpkins probably come from C. maxima.

NOTE: When this article was first uploaded and placed on-line in the spring of 1996, it appeared that the squash had clearly beaten its long-time rival, the pumpkin, and was indeed the world's largest fruit (at least according to contests sponsored by the World Pumpkin Confederation). But finally, on that fateful day of October 5, 1996 at the official World Pumpkin Confederation weigh-in at Clarence, New York, the pumpkin once again regained its title of the world's largest fruit. Not only did a record-breaking pumpkin beat its 900 pound squash rival of 1994, but it also broke the 1,000 pound barrier where no pumpkin or squash had ever gone before. For their remarkable 1,061 pound mammoth pumpkin, the lucky growers received a grand prize of 50,000 dollars. In another pumpkin contest held at Canfield, Ohio in October 2000, a pumpkin weighed in at 1140 pounds. In October 2002, a pumpkin was reported from Manchester, New Hampshire with an astonishing weight of 1337 pounds. At the October 1, 2005 Giant Pumpkin Growers Weighoff in Pennsylvania, a pumpkin weighing 1469 pounds was reported. In October 2010 at Stillwater Harvest Fest, Stillwater, Minnesota, a giant pumpkin weighed in at 1,810.5 pounds.

  Wild & Wonderful World Of Gourds  
See Botanical Record-Breakers

In case you accidentally bite into a very hot chile pepper in a dimly-lit restaurant, try sipping on a dairy product, the thicker and creamier the better. The protein casein helps to remove the capsaicin molecules from your tongue and mouth.

An assortment of pepper spray canisters. The large red canister
(the size of a small fire extinguisher) is designed for grizzly bears.

The alkaloid capsaicin from chile peppers is also used in topical analgesic creams for the relief of arthritis, tendinitis and muscular strain. The warm sensation provides a soothing counterirritant that relieves pain and deep tissue inflammation. There are conflicting opinions regarding the efficasy of this treatment, but it appears to work well for some people. You might want to test yourself with a small amount because it gets very hot, even hours or days after applying. Warning: Capsaicin doesn't wash off that well with soap and water so be very careful not to touch your eyes or private parts.

Pepper Family (Piperaceae)

Black Peppers (Piper nigrum)

The historical spice pepper of the Middle Ages refers to the black pepper (Piper nigrum ) which belongs to a completely different plant family (chile peppers belong to the tomato family or Solanaceae while black peppers belong to the Piperaceae). The native distribution of this tropical vine is southern India, Ceylon and Malaysia. The dried, black, seed-bearing berries (called peppercorns) are ground up and used as seasoning. [Peppercorns have also been used as a nonlethal but painful replacement for lead pellets in shotgun shells.] In white pepper, the black husk is removed and the inner white seeds are ground up. In 1492 Columbus set out from Spain for the "Spice Islands" of the East Indies, but instead he ended up in the Caribbean region. Just as the West Indies were named because Columbus was searching for India, so the New World capsicum pepper was called "red pepper" because the crew was hoping to find the valuable spice pepper. With all due respect to Captain Columbus, this remarkable story makes you wonder about his navigational skills.

Left: Black pepper plant (Piper nigrum) showing leaf and cluster of ripe fruits (berries). The dried, seed-bearing, black berries at the end of the fruit cluster are the source of "fresh ground pepper." Right: Peppercorns: The dried, seed-bearing, black berries from the pepper plant (Piper nigrum). These tasty morsels are the source of fresh ground pepper. The U.S. penny is shown as a size comparison.

Pepper Family (Piperaceae)

Kava Kava (Piper methysticum)

A close relative of black pepper is called "kava kava" (Piper methysticum). A drink made from the roots is used in Polynesian religious rituals and social life. This is also a popular herb sold throughout the world as a mild sedative and tranquilizer. Note: Taking this herb with other synthetic tranquilizers and mood-altering drugs may result in serious side effects.

Sumac Family (Anacardiaceae)

South American Pepper Trees

A. Brazilian pepper tree (Schinus terebinthifolius), a naturalized species in southern California and a rampant weed in the Florida Everglades. B. Peruvian pepper tree (S. molle), another commonly naturalized dioecious species in southern California. Both species are members of the sumac family (Anacardiaceae), along with poison oak. The mature red berries of female trees superficially resemble the red berries of black pepper (Piper nigrum), but they are not related. Berries of S. molle are sometimes sold as "pink peppercorns." Although they are hot to the mouth, their use as a condiment is unwise because they contain volatile terpenes that can irritate mucous membranes in hypersensitive people.

A peppercorn medly, including the dried fruits and seeds of black pepper (Piper nigrum), coriander (Coriandum sativum) and allspice (Pimenta dioica). According to the label, the red fruits are from the Brazilian pepper tree (Schinus terebinthifolius). Dried fruits from South American pepper trees are not commonly seen in condiment mixtures. This mixture of spices is tasty, but volatile terpenes in the South American pepper trees can apparently irritate mucous membranes in hypersensitive people.

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