Capsicum: The Problem with Varieties

Which variety of chile pepper have I got here? It’s one of the most popular questions. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most difficult to answer, leading deep into the weird world of Capsicum botany.

Varieties, in a strict sense, are forms of a plant species which are…

  • distinct,
  • uniform and
  • stable.

Thus, a variety should have typical characteristics in color, shape, size, taste; these characteristics don’t vary, and stay the same if seed of/for this variety are multiplied without cross-pollination.

Varieties are registered in different countries (of origin) or with organizations (such as the EU), gaining trademark status – or similar protection. Considering the chile peppers, it seems that quite small changes are enough for the status as a new variety…

An example. The following are a selection (with recognizable names) of varieties registered in the EU:
Almapaprika, Apache, Austrocapi, California Wonder, Cece-AS, Cherry Bomb, Chili-AS, Confetti, Corno (di toro) giallo, Corno (di toro) rosso, Doux d’Espagne/Dulce de Espana, Dulce Italiano, Ferenc Tender, Gelber Spiral, Largo de Reus, Neusiedler Ideal… (the whole list is published in the EU Common Catalogue of Agricultural Plant Species).

Only a few of those (and many others just get numbers or have very little known names) fall into the category of what is commonly called a variety. The reason: Usually, what is treated as name of a/the variety is actually (only) the chile pepper’s pod type, which is found in a plethora of different origins, landraces, and possibly varieties.

A Variety is not a Landrace

Chile peppers are grown widely, close to world wide, in fact.

The majority of them are not grown from commercial seed, with commercial-professional interest in the development of the kinds of peppers being grown.

As a result, we find many more landraces than varieties:
The difference is that there are typical traits which have developed and which there was – or at least, may have been – some selection towards. Not least, what does best spreads further in the local gene pool.

Still, purposely or through the vagaries of genetics, there is a wider variety of traits.

The way they are grown is usually less controlled, too. So, there is more cross-pollination. In effect, it is quite useless searching for “the” variety’s name.

Preferably, the chile pepper found would be described through scientific species (and scientific variety/subspecies), pod type, and additional data such as local name, place where it is grown or was at least collected, farmer growing it…

The majority of better-known, established landraces is, in fact, labeled with the name of its region/city of origin:
De Padrón, Chimayo, Santa Fe, …

Terroir, not just with Wine

The differences in grower and (conscious or unconscious/natural or man-made) selection taking place, along with the influence of the place (climate, soil) produces a difference similar to the one found in cacao beans or wine:

A chile pepper, even if it has one single name, will differ somewhat in its characteristics, depending on the grower, the region, the climatic variability in a certain year.

Except, probably, if a “true” registered variety was used. Uniformity is one of the necessities for having a registered variety, after all…

Interestingly, there are some types of chilli/paprika with protected designation of origin (“appelation d’origine controlle”), such as Piment D’Espelette, Piquillos de Lodosa.

Apparently, however, it is “only” the designation of origin which is protected, not usually the variety/landrace utilized in producing that kind of chilli/paprika…

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