Whether you’re biting into a sweet and juicy bell pepper or turning up the heat with a fiery habanero, you’re no stranger to the plant genus Capsicum.
Capsicum has been cultivated and consumed for thousands of years. In an incredible number of ethnic dishes around the world, peppers are an essential ingredient for truly authentic regional flavors as well as adding heat to just about any type of food imaginable.
But what’s the difference between a pepper and a chili pepper? Is a chilli something other than a chile and thus also different from a chili? Spelling aside, Capsicum by any other name is still just that; Capsicum.
What most people today refer to as “peppers” are all part of the plant genus Capsicum. Cross-pollination both in nature and through intentional efforts to create pepper hybrids has resulted in a baffling range of more than 3,000 known varieties of Capsicum, with new varieties continuing to emerge.
However, before you let that number intimidate you, forget about the nearly countless varieties that exist and rest assured there are far fewer officially classified varieties. After a great deal of heated argument and countless amendments within the scientific community, the genus Capsicum is now widely accepted as consisting of 26 wild species and just 5 domesticated species.
Pepper lovers, horticultural hobbyists, budding chefs, lovers of flavorful foods and even those who just love the novelty of a distinct flavor that can only come from Capsicum (whether the taste you savor is sweet and biting, hot and spicy, warm and pungent) need only focus on the domesticated species. With knowledge of the differences between each of these five species of the Capsicum genus, you can easily learn to differentiate by learning what exactly makes each one of these unique and different from the others.
We’ve laid out the five Capsicum species with which every pepper lover should become familiar. Once you’ve whet your palate with the basics of these varieties, visit our individual pages on these species for detailed information including everything from unique traits and physical differences from other pepper types to the types of peppers within each variety, heat profiles of individual species, indigenous regions and even must-know tips and tricks for growing your own favorite Capsicum variety.
Of the five domesticated species of Capsicum, this particular species is the most common as well as the most extensively cultivated. Peppers of this species include a wide range of flavors and intensities from sweet to mild to hot.
Many favorites are members of this species, including:
- Bell pepper
- New Mexican (Anaheim, Hatch, etc.)
If you’re a spice junkie who loves to push the limits of just how much fire your taste buds can handle, the Chinense species boasts many of the hottest cultivars in the world. As this species originated in the Amazon Basin, quickly becoming common throughout Central and South America, the Caribbean and the tropic, the intensity of this species certainly lends its heat to countless traditional cuisines in these parts of the world.
Too hot for many to handle, this species includes fiery cultivars such as:
While the Chinense peppers offer the heat hardcore pepper-lovers crave, these tropical natives are a finicky variety, requiring specific conditions and long growing seasons that may not be ideal for growing in your own backyard.
With nearly as many cultivars as Annuums and a wide range of pods from fiery hot to non-pungent, Baccatum are one of the easiest to identify visually. This species has distinctive coloring on the flowers, and typically grows tall, often reaching heights of about 5 feet.
The Baccatum species includes the popular South American cultivars commonly known as Aji’s, like aji amarillo and aji panca.
The Frutescens species has the distinction of being much less widely cultivated than the others outlined here. However, don’t let that fool you. The tabasco pepper – used to create the wildly popular world famous sauce for more than 160 years – is a member of the Frutescens species.
Believed to have its origin in Brazil, this species also includes the famous malagueta chili pepper variety.
The compact habit and high pod yield of the individual plants in this species make it a particularly good choice for container gardening.
Of the five domesticated species of Capsicum, Pubescens is probably the least common. It’s also the only one of these five species that does not have a wild form.
With distinguishing features that include a height of up to eight feet, vibrant purple flowers and unique pods that are typically apple or pear shaped, Capsicum Pubescens is quite easy to tell apart from other species. It is also more likely than not the most difficult to grow.
The Pubescens species includes the Mexican manzano pepper as well as the Peruvian rocoto.
Whether you’re planning to grow your own peppers at home, become a more knowledgeable chef when it comes to harnessing the full potential of your favorite peppers or you simply have an interest in that hard-to-resist palate pleaser in general, just follow the link to an individual Capsicum species to dive in and learn more.