Capsicum annuum

chilli in flower


Capsicum annuum

L. 1753

pronounced: KAP-sih-kum AN-oo-um

(Solanaceae — the nightshade family)


common name: chilli

Capsicum comes from the Greek καπτω (kapto), to bite, referring to the fiery taste of many members of this genus; annuum is from the Latin annuus, lasting for a year. Capsicum annuum is the domesticated species of a plant native to Mexico. Archeological evidence suggests that peppers were used as food ingredients in Peru more than 8000 years ago. Columbus mistakenly applied the term ‘pepper’ to them, most likely confusing them with the highly prized but botanically unrelated black pepper, and the name stuck. He took seeds back to Europe, and distributed them on his voyages; within 100 years Capsicum annuum had spread around the world, and today constitutes the defining ingredient in many traditional national cuisines, notably of Italy, Thailand, Hungary, India, Spain, China and Holland. Botanically, most cultivated peppers today are Capsicum annuum (most common), Capsicum frutescens (tabasco), Capsicum chinense (habanero), or crosses within and among these species.

Capsicum annuum is the source both of popular sweet peppers (normally called Capsicum in Australia) and hot chilli fruit; numerous varieties and cultivars are cultivated all around the world. While the species can tolerate most climates, they are especially productive in warm and dry climates. Due to this climate tolerance, and the variety of flavours available, this New World plant spread across the world probably faster than any other crop.

The plant is a herbaceous annual or perennial (depending on climate), with a densely branched stem, and normally grows up to 1.5 m tall. The leaves are alternate, simple, entire. Small solitary, axillary white flowers develop into the shiny tapered berry, green when unripe, changing principally to red, although some varieties ripen to other colours, including green, brown and purple.

The caterpillars of some Lepidoptera, including the Light Brown Apple Moth Epiphyas postvittana and the Oriental Tobacco Budworm Helicoverpa assulta, use this as a food plant.

dangerous 2The fruit and the leaves can cause burning or stinging of lips, tongue and throat, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, burning sensation of the eyes and skin, with blistering after prolonged exposure, but it is toxic only if large quantities are eaten. The chemical compound found in chilli peppers and responsible for the burning flavor is Capsaicin. This is used as an ingredient of ointments to make a natural anti-inflammatory agent, as well as thinning the blood and stimulating circulation if taken internally. The fruits are, of course, almost an essential ingredient in chutneys and pickles.

The plants do not like having their roots disturbed, and prefer full sun. It is wise to avoid planting them where other peppers, tomatoes, potatoes or egg-plants grew previously – they are all members of the nightshade family and are subject to similar diseases. Carry-over pathogens in the soil can infect new plants.


Information about medicinal qualities of plants, or about their use as medicines, is for interest only, and is not intended to be used as a guide for the treatment of medical conditions.


Photographs taken in Picnic Bay 2008-2011
Page last updated 29th October 2018