hiles: the Medicinal Properties of Capsicums, and the New Mexico Chile Culture. By: Aaron Domini
Family and Genus • Chiles are in the genus Capsicum • Capsicums are in the Solanaceae family that includes tomato, potatoes, tobacco, and petunias. Bolivian Rainbow chiles peppers.
Chile Name • Chile terminology is confusing. Peppers, chili, chile and aji are used interchangeably for plants in the genusCapsicum. Very Hot Scotch Bonnets.
Chile Name • Chili refers to the official state dish of Texas and is the anglicized way of spelling the plant. • Historically in the Caribbean and South America Indigenous cultures called the plant aji, Columbus called the unfamiliar spice “pepper”, after the black pepper he was seeking, thus they have also been called peppers (Andrews 81). • In Mexico, Central America, and the southwestern U.S., Capsicums are called chile, which is the original Spanish way of spelling the plant with an e instead of an i. (http://weather.nmsu.edu/nmcrops/chile/chiledi.html.).
Chile Composition • Chiles are a low perennial shrub, but are harvested as annuals in the U.S. because of the cool winters, and genetically engineered varieties. • Chile fruits are considered vegetables when green and a spice when red and dried, but are berries botanically.
Chile Composition • Fruit characteristics (i.e., pungency, color, shape, flavor, size, and use) usually classify chile types. • Despite vast trait differences, nearly all Capsicum varieties commercially cultivated in the U.S. belong to one species, C. annuum. Other species are the tabasco (C. frutescens) and habañero (C. chinense).
Chile Composition Pedicle – stem Calyx – where the stem attaches to the pod Placenta – houses the seeds, and in the flesh of the placenta is where the capsaicin is stored (contrary to belief that it is in the seeds). Apex – the blossom end (www.chileinstitute.org)
Growing Conditions/Distribution • Chiles are native to South America, and are thought to have originated in area south of the wet forests of Amazonia and the semiarid regions of Brazil and Bolivia (Andrews 82). • They have been distributed by birds, and by humans through exploration and slave trade for the past 1,000 years. • So swiftly were chiles dispersed from their origins in South America they have been long been perceived by botanists to be native to India and Indonesia (Andrews 82).
Growing Conditions/Distribution • Now chiles are grown around the world, where there is an annual warm climate and available moisture. • Although wild chiles have much smaller leaves and more leggy branching patterns than do domesticated chile pepper plants, neither the wild nor the cultivated chile foliage fares as well in direct sunlight as it does in partial shade (Nabhan 26).
Growing Conditions/Distribution • 60% of the wild chiles found growing in the Sonoran Desert were found growing under one species of “nurse plant”, the desert hackberry. Chile distribution is also associated with wolfberries and graythorns shrubs (Nabhan 26). • This is possibly due to the relationship between birds and chiles. Birds feed on the berries of these shrubs, and use them as perches. In indigenous American folklore wild chiles were also called “bird peppers”.
Growing Conditions/Distribution • Pima elders in the Sonora state chiles were eaten and dispersed in early fall by red feathered birds such as cardinals, finches, Gila woodpeckers, mockingbirds and thrashers (Nabhan 27). • Chiles are an excellent source of beta-carotene, a substance that helps birds such as finches maintain their brilliant red plumage (Nabhan 26). • Some species of birds can strip more than thirty fruits per hour from chiles.
Growing Conditions/Distribution • New Mexico is ideal for growing chiles with a high desert climate, warm days and cool nights. It is often planted with corn, beans, and squash. Farmers have to save the seed and replant year to year, because the cold winters kill the native perennial shrub (Padilla 3). • However, the traditional practice of saving seeds is being stopped by patented genetically engineered varieties.
Cultivation • Chile cultivated in the southwest U.S. are planted in early summer and harvested in the late summer for green chiles. The red peppers are left in the field to ripen as long as December. • Ideal growing conditions are in partial to full sun in a well drained area. Chiles also need to be kept well watered, but it is important to watch out for mold and rotting at the base of the plant.
Cultivation • Chiles produce their pods in about four months normally, but with cross breeding and genetic engineering some chile plants can produce pods in about two months. • Chiles are cultivated at different times to experiment with different taste. Generally the older the chile the more intense the heat (Padilla 3).
Harvest • Chile harvest has been the same for 2,000 years. There is no way to harvest the chiles by machine because of the way they hang down on the plant, thus one of the biggest investments in cultivating chiles is labor. • Currently efforts are being made at NMSU to breed a chile that grows pods upwards so they can be machine harvested. • Other chile growers are also currently experimenting with chile harvesters, but there is no such marketable equipment at the current time (Padilla 104). Fiery Habaneros !
Chiles Historically • Chiles were a staple food source for the Incas and Mayan Indians. • The first chiles consumed were collected from wild plants. Apparently the indigenous people in South America were growing chile plants between 5200 and 3400 B.C., which place chiles among the oldest cultivated crops of the Americas.
Chiles Historically • It is not clear how chiles migrated to the U.S. Many believe they were brought by the spanish during Coronado's conquest in the 1500’s. • Others believe the Native Americans already possessed chiles from trading with the Mexican Indians. • And still others believe they migrated to the U.S through the seed distribution of migrating birds, who are immune to the heat in capsaicin (Padilla 3).
Chiles and Anglo Americans • It wasn’t until the development of the New Mexico School of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (NMSU today) in 1862, and the Santa Fe railroad in 1821, the chile came to the dinner table of Americans (Padilla 3).
Chiles Today • In 1992, chile acreage in the U.S. exceeded that of celery and honeydew melons, while per capita use of chile exceeded that of asparagus, cauliflower, and green peas. • In New Mexico alone chile production has increased from 7,780 acres in 1973 to more than 34,500 acres in 1993. The crop produced was worth $67.3 million, but with processing its value exceeded $250 million (Padilla 10).
Chile Today • New Mexico is the biggest chile producer in the U.S., cultivating 60% of the total chile acreage in the U.S., followed by CA, AR and TX. • 80% of the chile is designated for processing and the remaining 20% is sold at grocery stores and small markets (Padilla 10).
New Mexico Chile Culture • There are approximately 44 million acres of farmland in N.M., and approx. 30 thousand acres of that is devoted to chiles, grown among an estimated 250 to 300 farmers (Padilla 32). • In general the New Mexico chile culture is split between the northern farmers and the southern farmers. • This split is defined by the Elephant Butte Damn and reservoir south of Albuquerque.
Northern New Mexico Chile Culture • The northern farms are small family farms, usually 1 acre or less. • These farmers generally grow traditional native chile varieties. • These farmers are more into growing chiles as a way of life, and want to continue the knowledge and lifestyle that has been part of their culture for generations (Padilla 33). • Chile grown here is usually sold at small roadside stands and the famous Santa Fe Farmers Market.
Northern New Mexico Chile Culture • The native chile varieties grown in the north have developed into varieties endemic to the northern climate (cooler winters, different soils and rougher land topography). • They are generally irregularly shaped, small and crinkly. Their skins are thin which makes them difficult to peel, and supposedly they taste better than southern pods (Padilla 35). • These chiles can be found around Dixon, Velarde, Santa Fe and Chimayo
Northern New Mexico Chile Culture • Their diminutive proportions are desirable however because they reflect the chiles ability to withstand the harsh conditions of the north. (Padilla 35) • The northern varieties are also being used by NMSU to genetically engineer heartier varieties.
Southern New Mexico Chile Culture • The southern farms tend to be large industrial monoculture farmers who grow chiles more as a business, and less to preserve the quality of life their ancestors knew. • The chiles grown in the south tend to be Hybrids or genetically modified varieties of chiles. • These varieties are chosen because they mature faster than native varieties, and posses certain desirable characteristics such as thicker skins, larger pods, as well as weather and pest resistance (Padilla 7).
Southern New Mexico Chile Culture • Chiles grown in the south are mainly grown in the Hatch Valley. • The large monoculture farms are driven by the Rio Grande, warm climate and the many acequias stemming from the Rio Grande. • The chile culture in the south is largely influenced by NMSU (NMSU has created more chile varieties than any other institution in the world) (Padilla 24).
Nutritional Properties • The nutritional properties of chiles makes for a powerful preventative medicine. • One medium sized green chile contains up to 6 X the amount of vitamin C as a Valencia orange (Padilla 22).
Nutritional Properties • Chiles also contain 2 X the amount of vitamin A and beta carotene as a carrot. • Chiles contain 2 grams of fiber. • Chiles are also low in calories, and contains almost zero fat. • The combination of these qualities makes chiles a powerful preventative of illnesses due to the high vitamin C and A content (Padilla 22).
Medicinal Uses and Capsaicin • As well as its wonderful nutritional benefits, chiles are also known and used medicinally today, and have been historically for their many medicinal properties, which stem from the heat activating alkaloid of capsaicin.
Capsaicin is a potent alkaloid compound that gives chiles their fiery nature. Most of the capsaicin (up to 80 percent) is found in the membranes of the chiles. Neither cooking nor freezing diminishes capsaicins intensity(http://www.capsaicin.com/). • Capsaicin is also similar to the chemical construction of vanilla (McCourt 48). • In addition different levels of heat are desired for different purposes. As a general rule of thumb a deep penetrating heat is desired for medicinal purposes, and a fast quick heat is desired for foods (Padilla 21).
Capsaicin levels have been recorded using the Scoville Organoleptic Test since 1912. It relies on trained human testers to taste different chiles and rank their pungency. • More recently Paul Bosland from NMSU developed the High Performance Liquid Chromatograph. This is a machine in which dried chile powder is measured for the precise amount of capsaicin present in the chile. This is the standard tool used today (Padilla 19).
Capsaicin is used by western doctors today in synthetic and processed medicines , and has been used historically by many different cultures through different methods of plant preparation. It is most noted medicinally as a gastrointestinal reliever and pain reliever (http://www.newton.dep.anl.gov/askasci/chem99/chem99011.htm). • Ecologically capsaicin acts as a chemical shield against predators, but birds are apparently immune to the alkaloid (McCourt 48).
Traditional Medicinal Uses • Most of the medicinal uses of chiles historically are still used today in western medicine. • However the previous cultures who used chiles used the fruit/pod of the plant as opposed to a synthetically processed form of capsaicin used traditionally in western medicine.
Traditional Medicinal Uses • The chile was also a staple food for many indigenous cultures, and has been perceived as a sacred plant, and is even used in spiritual ceremonies to induce visions. • These visions are produced by the natural endorphins the body releases in response to the capsaicin.
Traditional Medicinal Uses • Aztec Indians – Used chiles medicinally to stimulate the appetite, encourage bowl movements, aid in digestion, comfort stomachaches, and strengthen immune systems depleted by colds (Padilla 21).
Traditional Medicinal Uses • Spanish – The Spanish also advocated using chiles as cold remedy, to strengthen the immune system, aid in digestion, but warned it may cause flatulents (Padilla 21).
Western Medicinal Uses • Capsaicin helps arthritis sufferers by lowering the levels of Decapeptide Substance P (DSP) in the synovial fluid of joints. Capsaicin breaks down DSP, which can destroy cartilage and also magnify the sensing of pain (www.biology.arizonal.edu/). • After direct injection of capsaicin into the bladder of patients complaining of pain, the capsaicin eased the pain after only an hour and a half. A topical capsaicin cream can do the same (www.biology.arizonal.edu/).
Western Medicinal Uses • The FDA still lists capsaicin as a counterirritant that is a mildly irritating substance that inhibits a pain sensation, often used in creams. • The creams are a rather simple concoction of capsaicin powder extracted from potent chiles, which is then added to an emulsion of oil, wax and water (McCourt 50). • These creams are often used to sore muscles, sprains and to treat shingles caused by herpes.
Western Medicinal Uses • In addition, capsaicin has been used in western medicine to prevent heart attacks and strokes, reduce serum cholesterol levels, relieve backaches and psoriasis, as well as to cure strep throat and upper respiratory infections. Capsaicin has even been known to regrow hair, and act as a substitute for viagra (Padilla 22).
Anaheim • Anaheim - (Marketed in US as whole or diced green chiles in 4 or 7-oz. cans) • Mild to hot chiles, grows 7" long shiny fruits. Anaheim is a very high yielding chile, and is good canned, dried, roasted, fried or pickled.
Ancho • Ancho (Dried; sometimes called Pasilla; a poblano pepper in dried form) • Although it is hot, it has sweet fruit flavors like plum or raisin • It grows 4-6" blocky heart-shaped fruit, and is often used for chile rellenos.
Chimayo • This chile produces a medium heat, and grows 3-4" long by 3" wide. The pods turn green when ripe, and then fruits mature to red. The Chimayo is a traditional variety from Chimayo New Mexico. It is often used fresh in salsas or dried for powder.
Habanero Red Savina • Very, very, very hot! The C.chinense habanero grows 2" chinese lantern type fruits. This variety is larger and twice as hot as Habanero Orange, and matures red when ripe. This chile is also in the Guinness Book as the hottest chile known!
Jalapeno • The Jalapeno is the best known and most widely eaten chile in the US. • It is very hot, and grows 2-1/2 to 3" fruits with thick walls and a green color, a slightly larger Jalapeño pod turns dark purple before finally maturing to red.
Paprika • Paprika is a mild chile that grows 5" long by 1-1/2" wide pods. When the pods mature they turn a brilliant red, and are often used for drying to make paprika powder for cooking, or roasting fresh, but are most used and valued for their use as a red dye.
Pequin • Pequin is extremely hot and fiery with a slightly sweet and smoky flavor. • They grow 3/4-1" long by 3/8" wide and fruits are held upright on long pedicels. It is a tall plant and has dark purple leaves and stems.
Scotch Bonnets • These chiles are very hot. They grow 1" habanero-shaped fruits. The pods mature from light green to red, and are a little smaller than a habanero, but just as hot.
Serrano • Very hot and flavorful • They grow 2-3" long, 2" wide conical pods. The pods mature from green to red. It is a good all purpose chile for heat lovers.