Tag Archives: plant history

A Brief History of Peppers

Peppers are an excellent crop for gardens of the Southeast. They’re beautiful and incredibly productive. Peppers are available in various shapes, colors, and flavors, so every gardener can find a variety to fit their tastes.

We carry three species of peppers at Southern Exposure: Capsicum annuum, Capsicum chinense, and Capsicum baccatum. Most peppers easily found in the U.S., and almost all sweet peppers, fall under the species Capsicum annuum.

Worldwide, there are 26 known wild pepper species and five domesticated species. The domesticated species include the three we carry as well as Capsicum frutescens and Capsicum pubescens. 

Wild Peppers

Peppers originated in parts of South, Central, and southern North America. Scientists believe that C. annuum evolved in Mexico. C. frutescens probably evolved in the Amazon basin. Capsicum chinense is a misnomer; this species also originated in the Americas and is thought to have evolved from Capsicum frutescens. Capsicum pubescens is native to Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Capsicum baccatum is also believed to have originated in Peru and Bolivia, the Andean region of South America.

The first wild peppers probably produced small, red, pea-sized fruits, which attracted frugivorous birds. Unlike humans, birds don’t have the receptors in their mouths for capsaicin, the chemical that gives peppers their heat. Bird digestive systems also leave pepper seeds intact, making them ideal distributors for wild peppers. 

Domestication

Pre-ceramic remains of C. annuum have been found in east-central Mexico in the Valley of Tehuacán. These remains date to 9000–7000 B.P. (before present) and are “the oldest macrobotanical evidence for pre-ceramic chili pepper in the New World.” Archeologists found them in association with other domesticated crops such as maize and squash, leading them to believe these may have been cultivated.

C. frutescens probably evolved and was domesticated in the Amazon Basin. Today it’s cultivated and grows wild in many regions across South and Central America. It’s also grown in India and Ethiopia and has become an essential part of Ethiopian cuisine. 

The exact origin of C. chinense is still unknown. It’s believed to have evolved from Capsicum frutescens and was cultivated in the Amazon Basin in what’s now Southern Brazil and Bolivia. Later it was brought to the Caribbean and Cuba, where it was given the name Habanero. 

Domestication of C. pubescens dates back to pre-Incan times. It was grown by ancient Peruvians of the Paracas, Nazca, Moche, and Chimu cultures. Records of this species can be seen in the textiles, ceramics, and domestic remains of these societies.

Using DNA analysis in combination with archeological evidence, scientists have determined that C. baccatum was most likely domesticated in the lowlands of Bolivia and inter-Andean valleys of Peru at least 4000 B.P. These peppers were most likely domesticated by pre-Incan peoples, including the Arawak and Guarani. 

Sweet Pickle (Christmas Tree) Pepper

Pepper Varieties

As with many crops, commercialized farming shifted away from heirloom and open-pollinated peppers starting at the beginning of the 20th century. Farmers began growing more and more hybrids that produced uniform, sturdy crops that were ideal for shipping. Thankfully, many heirloom and open-pollinated peppers are available for backyard gardeners and small farmers, including those listed below and more.

***If the name is listed in green, it’s a variety we carry. Others are listed for educational purposes, but you may be able to locate seeds from another source.***

Capsicum annum

This species is the most commonly found in the United States and is the most extensively cultivated. It includes a wide variety of pepper shapes and flavors. Almost all sweet pepper varieties are cultivars of C. annuum. They generally have thicker walls than C. chinense or C. baccatum making them ideal for sauces.

Capsicum chinense

These peppers are generally thin-walled and commonly known as “habanero-type” peppers. Their heat is relatively dispersed throughout all parts of the pepper, and they have a fruity flavor. Most of the world’s hottest peppers, including the “Carolina Reaper,” come from this species though not all varieties are that intense.

Capsicum baccatum

C. baccatum peppers are typically the best for drying. They have a spicy, fruity flavor and are generally disease-resistant. They’re an important ingredient in Bolivian and Peruvian cuisine and are sometimes exported as ornamental plants.

Capsicum frutescens

Often used as ornamental peppers, C. frutescens typically bear colorful, lance-shaped upright fruits. They are small and very pungent. They’re often cultivated and used in India and Ethiopia. 

  • Tabasco Pepper
  • Xiaomila Pepper
  • Malagueta Pepper
  • Piri Piri (African Devil Pepper)
  • Siling Labuyo

Capsicum pubescens

This species is probably the most unique. It typically produces meaty, juicy, apple-shaped fruit with black seeds. The plants also have notably hairy leaves and withstand cooler temperatures than other pepper species. They don’t dry well and are typically eaten fresh or made into a paste.

  • Rocoto Longo
  • Canário
  • Mexican Manzanos
  • Peruvian Rocotos
  • Bolivian Locotos
  • Perón

All About Okra: Cultivating, Cooking, and History

Like many long cultivated plants, okra’s origins cannot be pinpointed but many historians believe it was first cultivated in Ethiopia. Records of its cultivation in ancient Egypt date to over 3000 years ago!  In the following centuries was spread throughout Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Okra was first brought to the Carribean and Southern United States by the slave trade sometime in the 1600s.

It’s a member of the mallow family, related to plans like hibiscus, cotton, and hollyhock. Though it does well in hot climates and will tolerate drought, okra performs best in rich, moist soil.

A resurgence of interest in local food and regional recipes has led to a renewed interest in okra. It certainly is a plant worthy of the attention.

Why Plant Okra?

  • The flowers are simply gorgeous.
  • Okra can easily be preserved for winter by making pickled okra.
  • The leaves are also edible and are often likened to beet or dandelion greens.
  • Okra seeds can be pressed and make a wonderful oil for cooking.
  • The seeds can also be roasted and ground and used as a caffeine free, coffee substitute. In the U.S. this practice was used in the south during the Civil War.
  • The plant’s stem is fibrous and can be used to make cordage or paper.
  • Okra has a rich history and important culture.
  • The pods make an excellent thickener for soups and stews, like gumbo.
  • The dried pods can be used in flower arrangements.
  • Okra can be used to make a hedge.

Growing Okra

If you’re considering growing okra do realize that it isn’t a small plant. Okra can grow up to 6 feet tall and should be grown 18 inches apart in rows 5-6 feet apart.

If you live in colder climate okra should be started indoors 2-3 weeks before your last frost date. Okra prefers rich soil but soil that’s too high in nitrogen can lead to a lot of leaf growth and little pod development.

Pods often need to be harvested frequently when they’re about 2-4 inches long before they grow too large. The pods can be picked by hand or you can use a small set of pruning shears.

For best results check out our Okra Growing Guide. You can find all of our okra varieties here.

Recipes to Try

From the greens to the seeds, pickled to fried there are a number of ways to enjoy okra. Here are a few recipes to get you started.

Pin it for later.

A Brief History of Garlic

Turkish Red Hardneck Garlic

Garlic’s easy cultivation and powerful flavor has made it a favorite for farmers and chefs alike. It’s is an unbelievably common ingredient in food today worldwide but few people realize that garlic is one of the oldest known horticultural crops. Evidence from historical records suggests that garlic has been cultivated for at least 5000 years! There are references to its use found from ancient Egypt, India, and China.

Garlic is believed to be originally native to Central Asia as this is where it can currently be found growing wild. Many plants referred to as “wild garlic” worldwide are members of the Allium family (leeks, onions, shallots, chives) but are not in fact true garlic or Allium Sativum. All cultivated garlic comes from two subspecies A. sativum var. ophioscorodon and A. sativum var. sativum. Like many “wild garlics” elephant garlic, though tasty, is not a a “true garlic” but is instead a member of the onion genus.

Garlic Scapes

A. sativum var. ophioscorodon often referred to simply as ophioscorodon are the hardneck garlics. They are generally grown in cooler northern climates and typically produce fewer but larger cloves. They also produce garlic scapes or flower heads. These are generally cut off before they open and eaten. This allows the garlic to put energy into the bulb rather than flowering.

A. sativum var. sativum are the softenck garlics. They do better in hotter climates farther south than hardneck garlics do. They’re also favored for braiding and their ability to keep extremely well in storage.

The cultivation of garlic probably came about because it was easy for people to pull up and travel with for later use or to plant somewhere else. Garlic cultivation may have also been a quickly taken up by humans because of it’s ability to reproduce both sexually and asexually. Meaning that garlic can make seed, combining genes with other garlic plants, but it is also very simple to grow garlic clones from individual cloves.

Another reason garlic may have quickly become so popular and widespread is because it grows well in a wide range of climates and soil conditions. Garlic is also very hardy and susceptible to few diseases and pests. So much so that in modern gardens it’s used as a companion plant to deter certain pests.

As people traveled and traded garlic’s use and cultivation spread. Little is known about most of its first travels around Asia but it is documented that garlic was first brought to Europe by the Crusaders.

Interestingly garlic has played more than a culinary role in human history. It’s been used for both spiritual and medicinal purposes through the years. In fact, it’s the most widely recognized medicinal herb.

In medieval times it was believed that garlic could ward off all types of evil. A belief that easily lent garlic for use in warding off vampires. Many cultures also believed that garlic was an aphrodisiac or held special powers relating to love. In the Middle Ages it was grown by the monasteries for its healing powers.

In ancient Greece garlic was given to athletes as it was believed to enhance their power and in ancient Egypt it was often fed to commoners and slaves to keep them healthy and working well. This belief also led to it’s use in feeding both Greek and Egyptian warriors as well as Roman soldiers and sailors who needed to be strong.

Garlic’s use as an herbal remedy is as varied as it is widespread. In ancient China garlic was prescribed for respiratory ailments, digestive issues, diarrhea, and parasites. It was also used in combination with other herbs to treat fatigue, impotency, headaches, and insomnia. It was used similarly in ancient India plus was prescribed to fight infections.

Today garlic is most renowned for its pungent flavor but has also gained some scientific credibility as a medicinal herb. Though there isn’t conclusive evidence some studies suggest that garlic can reduce blood pressure and cholesterol, boost your immune system, and help the body fight off illness and infection through its anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties.

Garlic’s story is ultimately a human story. This one plant has been handed down, shaping people’s meals (and possibly health) for 5000 years. If there’s an easy to grow plant that deserves a place in the home garden surely it’s garlic.

Remember garlic is planted in the fall so the time to start yours is now!