Garden staple has wide family tree

Posted July 26, 2008, at 12 a.m.

With every garden comes knowledge.

Like this bit: Jacques Cartier introduced the cabbage to the Americas in the 1540s.

Or this bit: Basil, by the time it crossed the Atlantic to our shores, was on par with tomatoes as a sign of witchcraft.

For in every garden every season, there always is something that gets overlooked.

As in this bit: The Capsicum annuum I have grown for years is “the best known domesticated species in the world,” according to a Purdue University paper I found online.

Who knew?

Not me, and I didn’ t even know it was called Capsicum annuum in the first place.

It doesn’ t get printed on the little tags at the nursery, where one can flex one’ s taxonomy muscles. It isn’ t on the store labels. It won’ t be the first name you see when you read about it in the paper, this being the exception, of course.

Because you have been reading about it in the paper.

Capsicum annuum is the lowly, much-maligned pepper.

Not here, though. This is an ode to the pepper, misnamed by none other than good ol’ Chris Columbus who famously misjudged his landing and thought he had found a new source for the East Indies’ black pepper when he stumbled across the chili and called it pepper.

Thanks, Chris.

Capsicum annuum, both the hot and the not, has invaded the globe since that New World discovery, becoming an overwhelming staple as a hot spice and a green vegetable. Just think of all the cultures that use peppers in their cuisine, either as a flavoring or vegetable. It is brain boggling.

What also floored me is that Capsicum is a member of the Solanaceae family. Who knew it was a member of the same family as potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant and petunias, to name but a few?

Not me, I am mildly ashamed to admit.

And certainly not my potato beetles, which like to gnaw on the potatoes and eggplant every growing season. I don’ t even find Japanese beetles — curse their shiny winged bodies — on the peppers, which is a lucky thing for both beetle types since I adore my peppers.

From everything that I have read, it looks like all Capsicum are from Central and South America, taking so many forms that only in the past few decades have the experts been able to sort out the many varieties.

Those varieties come in a Technicolor rainbow of hues, with just as many shapes. Looking through any self-respecting seed company catalog will net you an array of peppers that one couldn’ t begin to grow in a lifetime.

My favorite, however, is one that was bred for the North. Ace is considered a standard bell pepper and one that I have grown with great success for years. Most summers I get enough to freeze to last the winter for use in any cooked dishes requiring some green pepper. And if you let the green Ace fruit mature, they will — like magic — turn red.

Every year, I attempt to plant a few different peppers, although this year my choices were limited because I got a late start. I may have more than 50 plants this season, but nothing is too outrageous.

I have some cayenne plants, specifically grown for adding to my dilly beans. I also have some jalapeno plants that likely won’ t poison me.

I like to test bell pepper varieties, too, to see if they can rival the Ace hybrid. This year I am trying Bell Boy, touted as a good, all-around pepper, and Better Belle, said to be perfect for stuffing because of its sturdy-walled fruits. I am trying Red Beauty again this year, another green that turns red when mature.

So far, the Ace, cayenne and jalapeno all have peppers on them, with Ace in the lead with some glossy fruit ready to harvest.

I don’ t have much luck starting peppers from seed, although I attempt it when the urge strikes. Someday I may go crazy and raid Seed Savers Exchange, a source that is preserving — and sharing — our diverse seed heritage. I particularly like the sounds of the Fish pepper, with its no less than variegated leaves and striped fruits of cream and green to orange and brown to all red. It traditionally was a staple in oyster and crab houses on the East Coast.

Or maybe I’ ll try the Nosegay pepper, a 6-inch-tall plant with leaves that resemble bay leaves. The fruits look like berries and transform into numerous colors while ripening.

I’ ve already tried the Sheepnose Pimento pepper, so called because it is said to look like a sheep’ s nose. And I’ ve grown chocolate and orange and lavender peppers. And cream and yellow peppers.

And still there are so many more to try.

Yup, the garden is just an intellectual stir-fry that just got better with peppers.

Note of thanks

To all of you who wrote, phoned or stopped to speak with me after last month’ s column, thank you. Your heartfelt condolences on the loss of my darling Daisy touched me and my family. Your kindnesses were moving and beautiful. I won’ t forget.

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