Chili or is it Chile, or Chilli or even Capsicum......?


...Chile terminology is confusing


...pepper, chili, chile, chilli, Aji, paprika and Capsicum are used interchangeably for "chile pepper" plants in the genus Capsicum. The word Capsicum comes from the Greek kapsimo, meaning "to bite" (a reference to pungency or heat). In Mexico, Central American and the Southwest U.S.A., a Capsicum is called a Chile pepper. To confuse matters even more, a sweet bell pepper is often called a capsicum pepper whereas a hot pepper is often called a chile pepper !


From the Nahuatl dialect of the Aztec language, the name Chiltepin arises. This was the name given to one of the earliest known varieties. The name is believed to be a concatenation of the word chile and Tecpintl, where the combination translates as 'Flea Chile', which is believed to allude to the sharp biting taste of the chile pepper. Through the ages, this original name has been altered: chile + Tecpintl to Chiltecping to Chiltepin to Chilepiquin. The last two names are fairly interchangeable. The version used depending upon the source of the information. The modern botanical name used by taxonomists for this variety is Capsicum annuum var. aviculare.


Nowadays, the spelling version of "chili" identifies the dish that is a combination of meat and pungent chile peppers. In some recipes, beans will also be added. "Bell pepper" generally refers to non-pungent, blocky, sweet chile pepper types, while "chile pepper" has come to mean the pungent chile varieties that us Chile-Heads so adore.


It is thought that chile peppers made their first appearance around 7,000 BC in Central Mexico. The first European to 'discover' chiles was Christopher Columbus in one of his historical trips to America around 1493. He was actually looking for an alternative source of black pepper, which at the time was the favourite spice in Europe. What he 'discovered' was a small fiery pod that had for centuries before provided a seasoning for native Americans, the hot chile pepper. Columbus called them 'pimiento' after the Spanish word for black pepper. Capsicum is not related to the Piper genus, which contains Piper nigrum L., the source of black and white pepper. Within a century, hot chile peppers had spread worldwide.

Places of origin      Places of cultivation


The genus Capsicum is a member of the Solanaceae (Nightshade) family, that includes tomato, potato, tobacco and petunias. Chile peppers grow as a perennial shrub in suitable climatic conditions. A plant may live for a decade or more in tropical conditions of central South America, but it is mostly cultivated as an annual elsewhere.


Chile is native to the Western Hemisphere and probably evolved from an ancestral form in the Bolivia/Peru area. The first chiles consumed were probably collected from wild plants. Apparently the indigenous peoples were growing chile plants between 5200 and 3400 B.C., which place chiles among the oldest cultivated crops of the Americas. Prehistoric Americans took the wild chile Piquin and selected it for the various pod-types known today. However, domesticated chiles apparently were not grown prehistorically in New Mexico.


It is not known exactly when chiles were introduced into New Mexico. Chiles may have been used by the indigenous peoples as a medicine, a practice common among the Mayans. By the time the Spanish arrived in Mexico, Aztec plant breeders had already developed dozens of varieties. Undoubtedly, these chiles were the precursors to the large number of varieties found in Mexico today. However, the green and red chile grown in New Mexico had not been developed. Whether chiles were traded and used in New Mexico pueblos is still not clear. However, chiles have been grown in New Mexico for at least four centuries.




    Kingdom:             Plantae
    Subkingdom:       Tracheobionta
    Division:              Magnoliophyta
    Class:                 Magnoliopsida
    Subclass:            Asteridae
    Order:                 Solanales
    Family:               Solanaceae
    Genus:               Capsicum


Capsicum species list


In 1680, there were 33 species of chile pepper in the first list that appeared in the published study 'Plantarum Historiae Universalis Oxoniensis', by Robert Morrison. They are still being classified, and at present the list includes the following:


     Capsicum annuum One of the big five. Look here for more info.


     Capsicum anomalum Omitted from Capsicum species list in 1983 by Eshbaugh. A wild variety of pepper from Japan. This isn't a true Capsicum, rather it is a member of the Turbocapsicum genus. According to the USDA-ARS GRIN database; Plants 1.0m tall, growing in shade. Branches numerous. Leaves long, elliptical and glabrous. Flowers in umbels, with 2-5 per umbel. Corolla short, bell-shaped and yellow. Fruit round, 1.0cm and red at maturity.


          Turbocapsicum anomalum is a perennial, glabrescent, to 1.5 m tall. Stems terete at base, drying ridged, branching dichotomously. Petiole 1-3 cm; leaf blade ovate, elliptic, or ovate-lanceolate, 5-18 Œ 3-10 cm, papery, base obtuse, margin subentire, apex acuminate or obtuse; veins arcuate. Inflorescences solitary or up to 12-flowered clusters. Pedicel 1-2 cm, nodding, slightly thicker distally. Calyx cup-shaped, 2-2.5 Œ 3 mm, truncate. Corolla bright yellow, short campanulate, 5-8 Œ 6-8 mm; lobes ovate-deltate, recurved, 2-3.5 mm, minutely ciliolate. Filaments ca. 0.5 mm; anthers ca. 1.8 mm. Style 2.5-3 mm. Fruiting calyx not enlarged. Berry shiny, scarlet, 0.8-1.2 cm. Seeds pale yellow, discoid, 1-1.5 mm across. Fl. Aug-Oct, fr. Sep-Nov. Mesophytic sites in forests or open places; various elevations. Found in Chinese provinces of Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi, Guizhou, Hunan, Jiangxi, Sichuan, Taiwan, Yunnan, Zhejiang, as well as in Indonesia, Japan including Ryukyu Islands, Korea, Philippines, Thailand. Known as Long Zhu/Chi Zhu (in Chinese) and False pepper/Chinese false pepper/Japanese false pepper (in English).


     Capsicum baccatum One of the big five. Look here for more info.


     Capsicum breviflorum Omitted from Capsicum species list in 1983 by Eshbaugh.


     Capsicum brasilianum No information.


     Capsicum buforum Found in Brazil. (A.T.Hunziker)


     Capsicum campylopodium Found in southern Brazil. (Sendt)


     Capsicum cardenasii This is a different looking pepper plant with very small leaves, wispy branches and long tubular purple flowers. The pod is 1cm diameter sphere and ripens from dark green to red. Believed to be found only around La Paz, Bolivia. Genetically part of taxa including Capsicum pubescens. Common name: Ulupica. Known to be susceptible to Pepper mild mottle tobamovirus. Very hot. Classified under USDA #573336.


C. cardenasii flower © Fatalii's Chiles


     Capsicum chacoense Believed to be found only in Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay. A white flowered species. Known to be susceptible to Pepper mild mottle tobamovirus. Locally known as 'Tova' in Paraguay. According to the USDA-ARS GRIN database; plant is erect, approximately 80 cm tall. Flowers small, white, without spots, anthers yellow with wings at the base of the filaments. Fruits erect, elongated, triangular, 2.5 cm long, 0.5 cm wide, green turning to red at maturity, piquant. Very scarce. USDA #439414.



C. chacoense flower and pod © Mats & Patricia Pettersson


         Capsicum chacoense var. tomentosum From A.T.Hunziker.


         Capsicum chacoense var. exile


     Capsicum chinense One of the big five. Look here for more info.


     Capsicum chinense Jacquin Believed to be found only in Latin and South America.


     Capsicum ciliatum Omitted from Capsicum species list in 1983 by Eshbaugh. Synonym for Witheringia ciliata.


C. ciliatum flower © Fatalii's Chiles


     Capsicum chlorocladium From De Candolle.


     Capsicum coccineum Believed to be found only in Bolivia and Peru. A white flowered species.


     Capsicum cordiforme A synonym for Capsicum annuum. Common names includes Pimiento, Bell pepper, Cayenne pepper, Common garden pepper, Green pepper, Mango pepper and Paprika pepper. Susceptible to Pepper hausteco bigeminivirus, Pepper Indian mottle polyvirus, Pepper mild mottle tobamovirus, Pepper Moroccan tombusvirus, Pepper mottle polyvirus, Pepper ringspot tobravirus, Pepper severe mosaic polyvirus, Pepper Texas bigeminivirus and Pepper veinal mottle polyvirus.


     Capsicum cornutum Believed to be found only in southern Brazil.


     Capsicum dimorphum Believed to be found only in Colombia.


     Capsicum dusenii Believed to be found only in south-east Brazil.


     Capsicum exile Not commercially grown, several chile-heads have successfully grown the cultivar 'Cobincho'. This plant is very unlike most other capsicums. It branches out very heavily and the branches themselves are unusually thin. Grows over 130 cm tall and requires support. The leaves are small, smooth, and in the beginning are heart-shaped. The flowers are very small (about 7 mm), and are bright white with stamens which are yellow. The fruit are oval, ca. 8mm long, and mature from green to dark violet to red. Heat-level is about 7.


C. exile flower of cultivar "Cobincho" © Tommi Hietavuo


     Capsicum eximium Believed to be found only in Bolivia and northern Argentina. Said to be a wild relative of the Rocoto. Genetically part of taxa including Capsicum pubescens. A purple flowered species with white to purple corolla and light coloured seeds. Known to be susceptible to Pepper mild mottle tobamovirus. Said to grow like a small tree.



C. eximium pod and flower © Mats & Patricia Pettersson


         Capsicum eximium var. tomentosum Is a very distinctive sub-species that may be classified later with a separate species status.


     Capsicum fasciculatum Believed to be Capsicum frutescens var. fasciculatum.


     Capsicum fastigiatum Synonym for Capsicum frutescens. Recognised by United States Pharmacopoeia and British Pharmacopoeia.


     Capsicum flexuosum Treated as variety of Capsicum schottianum by A.T. Hunziker.


C. flexuosum pods © Botanical and Experimental Garden of the Radboud University of Nijmegen


C. flexuosum flower © Fatalii's Chiles



     Capsicum frutescens One of the big five. Look here for more info.


     Capsicum galapagoense Believed to be found only as a wild chile native to Isabela Island & Santa Cruz Island (2 of the Galapagos Islands), Ecuador. A white flowered species that grows to 0.25 inches long. dark green maturing to red. Very hot. USDA #GRIF1567


C. galapagoense flower © Fatalii's Chiles


     Capsicum geminifolium Believed to be found only in Colombia and Ecuador.


     Capsicum hookerianum Believed to be found only in Ecuador.


     Capsicum lanceolatum Believed to be found only in Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico.


C. lanceolatum flower © Fatalii's Chiles


     Capsicum leptopodum Believed to be found only in Brazil.


     Capsicum luteum Seeds known to be kept at Botanical Garden of Nijmegen.


     Capsicum lycianthoides [Bitter].


     Capsicum microcarpum Synonyms for Capsicum baccatum var. baccatum and Capsicum frutescens var. baccatum. Common names: Cayenne pepper, Aji and Peruvian pepper. Known to be susceptible to Pepper mild mottle tobamovirus.


     Capsicum minimum Synonym for Capsicum frutescens. Common names include Bird pepper, Cayenne pepper, Chili pepper, Tabasco pepper and Aji. Susceptible to Pepper Indian mottle polyvirus, Pepper mild mottle tobamovirus, Pepper mottle polyvirus, Pepper severe mosaic polyvirus, Pepper veinal mottle polyvirus and Serrano golden mosaic bigeminivirus.


         Capsicum minimum Blanco


     Capsicum minutiflorum Believed to be found only in Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay. Synonym of Bassovia minutiflorum.


     Capsicum mirabile Believed to be found only in southern Brazil.


     Capsicum mositicum [Toledo].


     Capsicum parvifolium Believed to be found only in north-east Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela.


     Capsicum pendulum Synonym for Capsicum baccatum var. pendulum.


     Capsicum praetermissum This variety grows to six feet tall in a single growing season and has thousands of cranberry sized fruit that ripen to red. The flowers are totally flat when fully opened, are purple edged with a white inner band and have a greenish yellow center. The ripe fruits are said to be very seedy. Sold commercially in parts of Brazil. Also known as Capsicum baccatum var. praetermissum . Designated as a separate species since at least before 1983, according to the UN/FAO (Genetic Resources of Capsicum, International Board for Plant Genetic Resources, 1983 [Crop Genetic Resources Centre, Plant Production and Protection Division, Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations]) Known to be susceptible to Pepper mild mottle tobamovirus. USDA #441654.


C. praetermissum flower © Mats & Patricia Pettersson


C. praetermissum pod © Tommi Hietavuo


     Capsicum pubescens One of the big five. Look here for more info.


     Capsicum rhomboideum [Dunal] [Kuntze].


     Capsicum schottianum Believed to be found only in Argentina, south Brazil and south-east Paraguay. According to the USDA-ARS GRIN database; Plants are erect, 80-100 cm tall with branches in zig zag pattern. Flowers are white with yellow-green spots at the base of the petals. Fruits are pendulous and reddish-orange at maturity. Leaves are slightly pilose.


     Capsicum scolnikianum [Hunz].


     Capsicum sinensis Known to be insusceptible to Potato U nepovirus.


     Capsicum stramonifolium Recognised by the USDA. Found in Panama. Synonym of Witheringia stramonifolia [Kunth].


     Capsicum tetragonum Common name for Hungarian Cayenne and Paprika chiles.


     Capsicum tovarii Believed to be found only in Rio Mantaro basin in south-central Peru, in low montane xerophytic zone, (native to lower dry mountains). Genetically part of taxa including Capsicum pubescens. A purple flowered species. Plants to 1m tall, perennial. Suffrutescent, stems diffuse or clambering, sympodially branched. Leaves deciduous, alternate, ovate-lanceolate (trullate when young), 3.5-8.2 x 1.5-3.8 cm, venation pinnate (brochidodromous), blade glabrous to sparsely pubescent above, sparsely pubescent below, villous in axils of veins beneath, apex acuminate to attenuate, margins entire, with uniseriate strigillose trichomes, base attenuate; petiole slightly channelled, 1-3 cm long. Inflorescence composed of axillary compound dichasia. Flowers functionally unisexual or bisexual, actinomorphic; calyx tube cup-like, 1.3-1.9 x 1.8-2.6 mm, membranous between lobes, teeth 5, variable, 0-1.3 mm long, glabrous to puberulent; corolla purple and cream or cream marked with 2 green spots at base of each lobe, campanulate, 4.4-8.5 mm broad, lobes with or without an apical claw, margins of lobes variously papillate. Stamens 5, epipetalous, alternating with the corolla lobes, anther sacs (thecae) parallel, extrorse, dorsifixed; ovary bicarpellate, 0.9-2.6 x 0.9-1.5 mm; style apical, heteromorphic, 1.5-7.6 mm long, stigma clavate or 2-4 lobed; ovules 4-8 per ovary, anatropous. Fruit is a pungent red globose berry, 4.4-7.6 x 4.2-7.3 mm, pedicel 1-2 cm long. Seeds 3.5-4.5 mm long, cream coloured, striate to reticulate, minutely tuberculate, auriform. (Chromosomes n=12). Flowering in May.


C. tovarii flower © Fatalii's Chiles



     Capsicum villosum Believed to be found only in southern Brazil; Minas Gerais, Parana, Rio de Janeiro, Santa Catarina and Sao Paulo.


         Capsicum villosum var. muticum


         Capsicum villosum var. villosum


     Capsicum violaceum From Kunth. Recognised by the USDA [PI 77331]. Synonym of Capsicum pubescens [Ruiz & Pav].


Can you help?


If you have any information or photographs of Capsicum varieties, please let me know!