Peppers, like any other plant-based food, originally came from a naturally growing, undomesticated plant. Wild peppers look more like berries than the peppers you’ll find in the supermarket today, and grow only in the New World, with their range spanning from the southern United States through Central and northern South America.
Humans have been using chile peppers for thousands of years. In fact, the most verifiable evidence shows chiles were domesticated as early as 6,000-6,100 years ago in both Peru and Mexico, though there's evidence to suggest they may have been used thousands of years earlier. Over the years, selective breeding and hybridization of these once wild plants has resulted in the over 50,000 chile pepper cultivars that are estimated to exist today.
As astounding as that is, the overwhelming majority of these peppers belong to only five different species in the Capsicum genus. While each existing pepper variety can be categorized into one of these five species, there are 25 known species in the Capsicum genus, most of them being non-domesticated. Capsicum is only one genus in the Solanaceae family (also referred to as the nightshade family), a family which contains many other edible plants such as tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, and goji berries.
Not only is it interesting to be able to identify which species your peppers belong to so that you can know about their origin and growing preferences, but this information becomes crucial if you hope to produce hybrids between your pepper plants, as only some species are able to successfully hybridize with others.
Most of the peppers you have encountered most likely are strains of Capsicum annuum, considering it contains more pepper varieties than any other species and can be found in cultivation all over the world. Popular Capsicum annuums include jalapenos, cayennes, serranos, plobanos, chili peppers, bell peppers, and most other sweet peppers.
The Latin name for the species is actually a mistake because annuum indicates that the plant is an annual. While the plant does in fact survive for only one season when grown outside in a temperate climate, it grows for many years in a row as long as it's not exposed to frost, as is true with all chile peppers.
The chinense species, sometimes referred to as the "bonnet pepper", is another mistakenly named pepper species. Chinense means that the plant is of Chinese origin; however, the wild variant of Capsicum chinense is native to the Caribbean and Yucatan peninsula of Mexico.
This pepper species has a reputation for being quite hot. In fact, habaneros and all super hots such as the infamous ghost pepper are members of this species. Despite their heat, they can be quite tasty with flavors ranging from citrus like to smoky.
Closely related to both Capsicum annuum and Capsicum chinense, this species has produced far fewer varieties and its peppers usually don’t get as big. This species is believed to have originated in South or Central America.
The most well known frutescens pepper is the tabasco, which is popularly grown and used to make Tabasco® sauce. Other noteworthy peppers include Thai peppers, African bird's eye and the malagueta pepper.
While the other domesticated pepper species can be commonly found in cultivation throughout the Americas, baccatum peppers are mainly only popular in South American countries such as Peru and Brazil. These peppers are unique from varieties of other species as they have a notably citrus or fruity flavor and a pleasant fragrant smell.
Most peppers of baccatum origin will have the prefix “aji” at the start of the name, such as the aji amarillo and aji omnicolor, and every baccatum pepper plant will have cream or yellow dimples on their flower pedals.
Perhaps the most easily identifiable pepper species, pubescens pepper plants have deep purple flowers, large black seeds, and the stems and leaves are covered in small hairs. This is likely the first pepper to be domesticated, with its origins traced back to Peru before the Inca Empire. The pepper has been domesticated for so long that we don’t even know what wild ancestor this plant came from.
The fruits tend to be large and have thick flesh, such as the manzano and locoto peppers. Despite originating so close to the equator, it is actually the most cold-tolerant pepper plant because it has been grown in high elevations in the Andes Mountains for thousands of years. If left to grow for many years, the plants can become huge, leading some to call it the tree pepper.