Capsicum annuum is a taxonomic classification that describes over 200 cultivated varieties of peppers in the Nightshade family including the venerable Cayenne or ‘chili pepper’. Cultivated Cayenne originated in South America around 2000 BC and was introduced to Europe in 1514 by Columbus. It’s popularity and culinary use quickly spread across Europe and eventually to India and China. Cayenne contains a unique palette of nutritional and medicinal phytochemicals including capsaicins (which impart the ‘hot’ flavor), carotenoids (giving characteristic colors to the fruits), volatile compounds (giving characteristic aromas), flavonoids, and vitamins (chiefly, vitamin C).
Traditionally Cayenne is best known as a food and as a spice. However, medicinal use is evidenced in numerous historical texts; it has been applied externally as an analgesic and internally to promote digestion and circulation. Capsaicins stimulate mammalian pain receptors giving the perception of heat and pain. However, birds are entirely unaffected. Thus, it is thought that the synthesis of capsaicins may reflect a Capsicum evolutionary ‘strategy’ to disperse seeds utilizing the digestive-tract of seed-eating birds as a vehicle.
Originally Published in June 2007