Why are they Called Peppers?

Chile Pepper Plant, de Agua
Due to global trade and possessing a similar pungency, the chiles of the New World were originally labeled as "peppers" – and the name stuck

Similar to someone who was given a nickname that just kind of stuck, the naming of chile "peppers" appears to have originated as a case of mistaken identity. In dedicating this website to chile peppers, it was interesting for us to learn how the fruit of these New World plants came to be known as "peppers". Are these many varieties of chile peppers related to the black pepper found in our pepper shakers? How about the Sichuan (Szechuan) pepper – any relation there?

The Original Pepper Plant, Piper nigrum

Interestingly, chile pepper plants are not even closely related to the plant that gives us black pepper. Chile peppers are native to South/Central America and belong the Solanaceae plant family.

Whereas black pepper comes from the Piper nigrum plant – a perennial tropical vine native to Kerala in southwest India – belonging to Piperaceae family. This plant produces strings of densely-packed clusters of berries that start green and ripen red. It's when these berries are picked and how they're processed that determines the type of peppercorns produced…

Black peppercorns
Traditional black peppercorns come from the almost ripe, green Piper nigrum berries. Once picked, they're cooked in water and then either oven, or sun, dried – this oxidizes the outer skin, turning the peppercorn black.
White peppercorns
When fully-ripened, the red Piper nigrum berries are harvested and soaked/fermented in water. This process loosens and removes the outer skin, leaving the white inner seed.
Green peppercorns
Piper nigrum berries are picked when green and cured to prevent oxidation and blackening during the drying process.
Red peppercorns
Red, ripened Piper nigrum berries are picked and cured to prevent oxidation and blackening during the drying process.
Pink peppercorns
These "peppercorns" are not from the Piper nigrum plant (see below).

The Piper longum, or Indian long pepper, is a closely related plant that's native to Assam and Burma. It has a milder flavor and is a cultivated crop in the drier regions of India. Similarly, Piper cubeba, the cubeb pepper (sometimes referred to as the tailed pepper, or Java pepper) is another closely related pepper plant from Java and Sumatra.

"Black Gold"

Piper nigrum Vine with Unripened Berries
Piper nigrum vine with the unripened, green berries that become black peppercorns (image from Aruna at Malayalam Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

A few hundred years before oil was the black gold of the industrial age, black pepper from the Piper nigrum was the black gold of the pre-colonial age. It was a prized spice that was sometimes used as a form of currency and was even said to have been requested as part of ransom payments.

An important point in the history – and ultimately the naming – of chile peppers is tied to the black pepper trade, and the voyages of Christopher Columbus. In the late 1400s, trade routes to obtain the highly-sought Piper nigrum peppercorns were many miles across land and sea. Muslims and Italians had near monopoly control over these trade routes, which helped to keep the price of peppercorns high. It was hoped that Christopher Columbus's voyages would uncover a viable sea route to the Indies to facilitate better trading.

Instead, Columbus's first voyage in 1492 took him to the Caribbean Islands where he encountered the aji chile. He called them "peppers", as they possessed the spicy characteristics of the black peppercorns he sought. Though mislabeled, it was this important historical introduction that kick-started the migration of chiles across the world. In little more than 50 years since, chile "peppers" made their way from the New World to at least as far as Portugal, Spain, India, Morocco and China.

Pink "Peppercorns" and Sichuan "Peppers"

Peruvian Pepper Tree, Schinus molle with Berries
Peruvian Pepper Tree, Schinus molle, with the ripened berries that become pink peppercorns (image from Squeezeweasel at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

It turns out that chile peppers weren't the only plants conveniently mislabeled by history… The pink peppercorns, mentioned above, are not closely related to either the Piper nigrum or chile peppers. Instead these are the dried, ripened berries from the Peruvian Pepper Trees – Schinus molle and Schinus terebinthifolius – of the Anacardiaceae plant family and are native to tropical and subtropical South America. Introduced to Florida in the 1890s, or earlier, they've become invasive and are known locally as "Florida Holly".

Similarly, the Sichuan (or Szechuan) "pepper" isn't closely related to any of the above mentioned plants. These are dried berries from the prickly ash shrubs – Zanthoxylum bungeanum and Zanthoxylum simulans – which are part of the Rutaceae family and are native to China. Close relatives of Sichuan shrubs are found regionally and also used as cultural spices…

  • Zanthoxylum piperitum in Japan to produce sansho and chopi in Korea
  • Zanthoxylum schinifolium is used to produce Korean sancho
  • Zanthoxylum rhetsa in Western India is known as teppal or tirphal
  • Zanthoxylum armatum is found throughout Southeast Asia and goes by a variety of regional names including timur, yer ma, and thingye
  • Zanthoxylum acanthopodium is known as andaliman in North Sumatra

The Family Tree of "Peppers" – In Botanical Terms

Not only do these "peppers" come from different parts of the world, according to their botanical classifications, they are not even closely related.

Type Native to… Plant family Closely related to…
Black pepper Southwest India Piperaceae Indian long peppers & cubeb peppers
Chile peppers South & Central America Solanaceae Potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, tobacco and poisonous nightshade
Pink peppercorns South America Anacardiaceae Cashews, pistachios, mango, poison ivy and poison sumac
Sichuan peppers China & Taiwan Rutaceae Oranges, lemons, grapefruit and lime

A Common Thread…

Peruvian Pepper Tree, Schinus molle with Berries
The molecular structure of capsaicin triggers the body's cellular ion channels to detect heat; other "peppers" have similar bioactive agents

While quite different from a botanical (and likely an evolutionary) perspective, these various types of peppers do share a common trait – they produce a distinctly unique sensation when eaten. Compared to the traditional flavor dimensions of sweet, salty, sour, bitter, umami, and aromatic, peppers take taste sensation a step further – by tricking our nervous system to detect heat, touch or pain!

How do they do this? Located within many of the body's cells are ion channels that interface to our nervous system to communicate environmental conditions. When triggered, the brain/body perceives that sensation.

  • Capsaicinoids in chile peppers target the TRPV1 receptor, which is responsible for detecting heat and acid. Hence the reason why eating spicy peppers can make someone sweat.
  • The piperine in black pepper also targets the TRPV1 receptor, but only at about 1% of the intensity of capsaicin. Additionally, it also weakly triggers the TRPA1 channel responsible for detecting pain.
  • Hydroxy-alpha sanshool, the active ingredient in Sichuan peppers, is less understood. It's believed to target the KCNK3, KCNK9 and KCNK18 receptors that detect pressure or touch – and can produce a mouth numbing or tingling sensation (which may help to lessen heat when paired with chiles).
  • Pink peppercorns appear to be even less understood. Some say it produces heat, while others say it's an irritating sensation. In any case, we've been unable to find credible information concerning the bioactive processes involved.

It was a culinary desire for new and exotic flavors, that made the fruits of these different plants similar. Their shared sensation-producing qualities made them worldly, sought-after spices – and transformed these remotely-related plants into step-cousins called peppers.

Additional Resources