Another terrific and tasty herb beneficial to you health is any of the genus capsicum.  All illustrations are of our home grown chillis.

Bird's eye chilli

Capsaicin is the main capsaicinoid in chilli peppers. Capsaicin is present in large quantities in the tissue which holds the seeds, the internal membranes and, to a lesser extent, the other fleshy parts of the fruits of plants in the genus Capsicum. The seeds themselves do not produce any capsaicin, although the highest concentration of capsaicin can be found in the white pith around the seeds.

Chilli peppers are native to South and Central America. They were introduced to South Asia in the 1500s and have come to dominate the world spice trade. Few could have imagined the impact of Columbus’ discovery of a spice so pungent that it rivaled the better known black pepper native to South Asia. India is now the largest producer of chillis in the world.

There are about 25 species in the genus Capsicum and they originate from Central and South America. Several species have been domesticated to produce many cultivated types, ranging from mild and sweet to hot and pungent.

Chilli peppers are perhaps the first plants to be domesticated in Central America, where there is evidence that they were consumed in 7500 BC.

Mexico and northern Central America is thought to be the centre of origin of Capsicum annuum, and South America of Capsicum frutescens. These were first introduced to South Asia in the 16th century and have now become the two most important species in the region.

Pungent varieties are the most valuable and frequently grown chillis in South Asia. They were introduced to South Asia in the 16th century by Portuguese and Spanish explorers via trade routes from South America. In the 16th century the celebrated musician Purandarasa described chillis in lyrics as a comfort to the poor and the great flavor-enhancer.

Exactly how the plant spread from South Asia to China and Southeast Asia is not recorded in much detail, but it is assumed that local, Arab and European traders carried the chillis via traditional trading routes along the coasts and great waterways such as the Ganges.

Rainbow chilli

Chillis were readily incorporated into local South Asian cuisines perhaps because people were already familiar with pungent and spicy flavors. Mounds of red chilli powder and yellow turmeric powder give splashes of vibrant color to every food market in India today.

The common species of chilli peppers are:

Capsicum annuum includes common varieties such as bell peppers, wax, cayenne, jalapeños, and the chiltepin
Capsicum frutescens includes chillis de árbol, malagueta, tabasco and Thai peppers
Capsicum chinense includes the hottest peppers such as the naga, habanero, Datil and Scotch bonnet
Capsicum pubescens includes the South American rocoto peppers
Capsicum baccatum includes the South American aji peppers

The Heat of Chillies

The unit of hotness is the SHU or Scoville Hotness Scale. Wilbur Scoville was an eminent American chemist. He devised a test based on repetitively diluting an extract of the pepper with sugar water until the heat is no longer detected. Testing is now more usually performed using accurate laboratory equipment, namely a chromatograph, and equating 15 parts per million (PPM) of capsaicin with an increase of 1 on the Scoville scale.

Scotch Bonnet chilli - very similar to Habanero, which has a slightly more tear dropped shape fruit.

Scoville heat Unit Examples
15,000,000–16,000,000 Pure capsaicin
8,600,000–9,100,000 Various capsaicinoids (e.g., homocapsaicin, homodihydrocapsaicin, nordihydrocapsaicin)
5,000,000–5,300,000 Law enforcement grade pepper spray, FN 303 irritant ammunition
855,000–1,359,000 Naga Viper pepperNaga Jolokia pepper (ghost chilli)
350,000–580,000 Red Savina habanero
100,000–350,000 Guntur chilli, Habanero chilliScotch bonnet pepperDatil pepper, Rocoto, Piri piri (African bird’s eye), Madame Jeanette, Jamaican hot pepper
50,000–100,000 Bird’s eye chilliMalagueta pepper, Chiltepin pepper, Pequin pepper
30,000–50,000 Cayenne pepper, Ají pepper, Tabasco pepper, Cumari pepper (Capsicum Chinese)
10,000–23,000 Serrano pepper, Peter pepper
2,500–8,000 Jalapeño pepper, Guajillo pepper, New Mexican varieties of Anaheim pepper, Paprika (Hungarian wax pepper), Tabasco sauce
500–2,500 Anaheim pepper, Poblano pepper, Rocotillo pepper, Peppadew
100–500 Pimento, Peperoncini
0 No significant heat, Bell pepper, Cubanelle, Aji dulce

Some medicinal uses

Black olive chilli, with inset showing ripe black fruit, with green Scotch bonnet chillis at the top right of the image


CAUTIONS: Do not get Cayenne in the eyes. Be especially careful if you wear contacts.

Since ancient times, chillis, both fresh and in the form of cayenne pepper, have been used by healers to cure a variety of ailments. They have been used externally to relieve pain and internally to cure anything from yellow fever to the common cold.

The active ingredient in hot red peppers is a compound called capsaicin, which gives it that unique sting. Capsaicin ointments have been found to relieve the pain of arthritis and shingles when applied externally, and, taken internally, capsaicin triggers the release of endorphins in the brain, which has a pain relieving effect similar to that of morphine.

The health-promoting properties of this plant are not confined to its pain relieving properties. A single pepper has been found to contain a full day’s supply of beta carotene and nearly twice the recommended daily allowance for vitamin C, which makes the chilli an invaluable food in the fight against cancer and heart disease. Chillis may also help in weight loss by speeding up the metabolism. After eating hot peppers people tend to perspire, this is a sign that their metabolism is increasing and that food will be dealt with more efficiently.

This herb is an anti-inflammatory and anti-irritant. It is used as a digestive aid to stimulates gastric juices. It also aids metabolism, and enhances athletic performance by increasing circulation. It is used for treating arthritis, food poisoning, heat stress, migraine, and obesity. Dried chilli peppers are used in creams, and capsules.

Capsaicin is known to stimulate the circulation and alter temperature regulation. Applied to the skin, capsaicin desensitizes nerve endings and it has been used in the past as a local analgesic. The capsicidins, found in the seeds are thought to have antibiotic properties.

The herb’s heating qualities make it a valuable remedy for poor circulation and related conditions. It improves blood flow to the hands and feet and to the central organs.

Applied topically, cayenne is mildly analgesic and will increase blood flow to affected parts helping to stimulate the circulation in ‘cold’ rheumatic and arthritic conditions.

Cayenne powder placed inside the socks is a traditional remedy for those prone to permanently cold feet.

Cayenne is taken internally to relieve gas and colic, and to stimulate secretion of the digestive juices.

It is also said to prevent infections from establishing themselves in the digestive system.

Capsicum annuum has been used externally as a local irritant to counter other irritants, itching or pain. For example, the chillis diluted with soap liniment have been applied to the skin for alleviating the pain in rheumatic joints and have been applied for chest affections such as bronchitis. Chilli has also been used to apply to snake bites. A gargle, tincture or paste has been used for tonsillitis and other sore throat conditions and hoarseness.

Chilli peppers, especially hotter varieties such as Cayenne and Habanero, can also be used externally as a remedy for painful joints, for frostbite, and applied directly to stop bleeding. They stimulate blood flow to the affected area, thus reducing inflammation and discomfort. Sprinkle a little powder into gloves or shoes to help stimulate circulation and keep the hands and feet warm. To make a liniment for external use, gently boil 1 tablespoon of hot pepper in 1 pint of cider vinegar. Do not strain, and bottle while hot.

Capsaicin seems to have a positive effect on blood cholesterol, and also works as an anticoagulant.

In a study of 200 patients with psoriasis, application of a 0.025-percent capsaicin cream significantly reduced itching, scaling, thickness, and redness compared with patients who used a plain cream.

A nasal application of capsaicin greatly ameliorated symptoms among 52 patients suffering from cluster headaches. Seventy percent of the patients benefitted when the capsaicin was applied to the nostril on the same side as the headache. When capsaicin was applied to the opposite nostril, patients did not improve.

Chilli Pepper Could Aid Weight Loss 
In 1986, researchers at Oxford Polytechnic in England fed 12 volunteers identical 766-calorie meals. On some days, researchers added three grams each of chilli powder and mustard. On alternate days, they added nothing. Researchers found that on the days they added extra spices, participants burned 45 extra calories, on average.

Some interesting snippets about chillis

The seeds of Capsicum plants are predominantly dispersed by birds. Birds do not have the receptor to which capsaicin binds, so it does not function as an irritant for them. (I always wondered how they could eat so many with no ill effects!)

Chilli pepper seeds consumed by birds pass through the digestive tract and can germinate later, but mammals have molars, which destroy seeds and prevent them from germinating. Thus, natural selection may have led to increasing capsaicin production because it makes the plant less likely to be eaten by animals that do not help it reproduce.

In 2006, it was discovered that tarantula venom activates the same pathway of pain as is activated by capsaicin, the first demonstrated case of such a shared pathway in both plant and animal anti-mammal defense.

US readers can buy chilli products from this great site I found while researching this article (and where some of the history snippets come from), just click on the image to go there.