Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The Bell Pepper: A Vegetable History

bell peppers April 1st marked the 90th anniversary of the development of the modern sweet pepper, also known as the bell pepper. In Central America, Mexico, and northern South America there is evidence that numerous types of peppers (Capsicum annuum) have been cultivated by native peoples for at least 6,500 years.

Hot peppers were the first New World crop grown in Europe, with seeds arriving in Spain in 1493. Since that time, plant breeders around the world have selected peppers for various traits, giving rise to such names for this Native American vegetable as “Hungarian” and “Thai” hot peppers.

Bell peppers are the only cultivar of this species which do not contain capsacin, the chemical that gives peppers their heat. Traditionally available in green, red, and yellow, more recent offerings include lavender and dark purple. Despite their widespread acceptance today, bell peppers were initially very unpopular in Europe.

We know sweet peppers as large, hollow, thick-fleshed vegetables (technically a fruit, though try to find someone who cares), but the original strain was named “bell” for a very good reason. It had a rather hard, thin wall, and contained an elongated vestigial stigma inside. The stigma is part of the female complement of the flower, the outermost part which often produces nectar and/or sweet aromas to entice pollinators.

This leftover stigma acted as a natural clapper, striking the walls of the bell pepper as it swayed in the wind. As a result, sweet peppers were a very noisy crop. So much so, in fact, that during high winds, maturing bell peppers would startle livestock, causing them to bolt, and would keep villagers awake at night. So for over 400 years, bell peppers were relegated to a curiosity, and not widely cultivated.

Fortunately for us, self-taught plant breeder Gregor Carillon developed the first silent bell pepper in 1908. And the rest, as they say, is history. An interest in agronomy must have run in the family, because Gregor’s great-uncle Mendel Solanaceae also tinkered with plant genetics. He is credited with breeding the first seedless oranges, double-yolked melons, and boneless tomatoes, all unveiled on April 1, 1888.

Photo of Bell Peppers, courtesy Wikimedia user Aldipower.

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A Canton, NY-based arborist, educator and writer, Paul Hetzler had intended to be a bear when he grew up, but failed the audition. He settled for an educator position instead, and serves as Horticulture and Natural Resources Educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

His work has appeared in the medical journal The Lancet, as well as Highlights for Children Magazine. He is the author of Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World.

You can reach Paul at the Cornell Cooperative Extension office in Canton at (315) 379-9192.




5 Responses

  1. MITCHELL EDELSTEIN says:

    This story should be dated April First.

  2. Paul says:

    “Mendel Solanaceae”

    The guy has the same last name as the modern Latin name for the family that peppers belong to. Probably one of those names based on what you worked on. Like Millers or Smiths.

  3. Jim S. says:

    This story does not seem to ring true.

  4. Paul says:

    Paul, do you know when tomatoes arrived in Europe? This is interesting, another plant (like tomatoes) that went from South America to Europe and then over to the “new world”. Long trip for a plant that was already just down south.

  5. Bill says:

    I always pay extra for the boneless tomatoes.

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