Capsicum Herb of the Year

October 24, 2015

The Heritage Herb Garden at the Ozark Folk Center graces the park with visual colors and textures, sweet and pungent aromas. With their natural display, the herbs help us to interpret the history of the human use of plants.

Peppers, Capsicum species, varieties and cultivars, are collectively designated as Herb of the Year 2016™ by the International Herb Association. The Herb of the Year™ selections are made based on superior contributions to at least two of three categories of herb usage, namely, medicinal, culinary or decorative. Chile peppers are outstanding in all three fields, with uses that expand beyond these major criteria.

Medicinally, according to WebMD, the fruit of Capsicum varieties, that contain the hot, active component capsaicin, are used to treat digestive problems including upset stomach, sea sickness, intestinal gas, diarrhea and cramps.

Cluster headaches are treated with capsaicin suspension, snuffed up the nostril on the painful side of the head. (This treatment hurts. Lidocaine or other local painkilling medicine is applied to the nostril before the hot pepper liquid is snorted.)

Capsaicin preparations are used to increase circulation, treat diabetic neuropathy and prevent excessive blood clotting, heart disease and high cholesterol. Externally, they are used to reduce the pain of fibromyalgia, strained muscles, shingles and arthritis.

Among other practical applications, hot pepper extracts were utilized by my parents to break their children of the habits of thumb sucking and nail biting. Ground chile pepper, sprinkled around plants regularly, will deter squirrels, deer and rabbits from garden plants. It is also useful for training puppies not to chew electric cords and various valuables. Capsaicin oleoresins are suspended in liquid to be sprayed for self-defense against menacing humans and bears in some countries. Law enforcement and military personnel use pepper spray as a nonlethal weapon to subdue suspects and for riot control.

Capsicum species include all the garden varieties of peppers from banana, bell and cayenne, through habanero, jalapeño, serranos, Tabasco and poblano. These are just a few of the different kinds of peppers that we can grow and put to good use. From mild to blazing hot, peppers are served as food and are essential, distinctive flavors in global cuisine.

Bell peppers are stuffed, roasted and are one third of the holy trinity of Cajun cooking (along with onions and celery). Banana peppers are infamous for fooling folks who expect to munch on a mild pepper only to find that the genes got switched in the one they picked for a salad. It is not that the genes got switched—it is just that are sweet and hot varieties of banana peppers and they look very similar to one another in the garden.

Cayenne peppers are quite warm in heat and turn bright red when they ripen. They are eaten fresh or dried and ground to make chile powder to add to chili seasoning mix. Habaneros, along with their evolutionary incendiary kin, including ‘Carolina Reapers’, ‘Trinidad Scorpion Butch Ts’ and ‘Ghost Peppers’ are eaten by crazy chileheads for reasons no one else understands.

Jalapeños, serranos and poblanos are necessary for Mexican menus. Jalapeños are common American fare for breakfast, lunch and supper. Served fresh, pickled or as poppers, stuffed with cream cheese or cheddar, these accompany almost all food at my table. Serranos are usually hotter than jalapeños and are most often used in salsas, marinades and in chili. Tabasco peppers are fermented and then preserved with vinegar and a little salt to make the famous pepper sauce. Poblanos are large fruits with thick flesh and may be hot or mild. The tough skin is blistered and peeled before the peppers are stuffed to make chiles rellenos and a host of other delicious Southwestern dishes.

Capsicums are easy to grow. They just need heat, full sun and moderately fertile soil. The plants are drought resistant once established and are not bothered by many pests. Flea beetles and tomato hornworms are usually too preoccupied with eggplant and tomatoes to bother my peppers. Aphids can be a problem if I wait too long to transplant seedlings to the garden or if young plants are stressed by lack of water. Leafminers can disfigure some leaves; however, the plants usually outgrow any damage. Deer do not eat peppers in the Kitchen Garden at the Ozark Folk Center although they definitely do visit other plants in the plot.

Peppers are decorative garden specimens because of the showy, interesting shape and color of the fruit. They all ripen from green and even white to fiery colors ranging from red to orange to coral, stopping visitors in their tracks—for weeks--from late summer to frost.

Chile peppers are photogenic subjects of art. A fine example of this is Susan Belsinger’s The Chile Pepper Calendar, celebrating Capsicum, Herb of the Year 2016™. It is available at For Mother Earth, The Village Apothecary, The Herb Shoppe and the Ozark Folk Center Homespun Gift Shop in Mountain View and from susanbelsinger.com on the World Wide Web. Capsicum will be featured prominently during The Herbal Field Trip and Medicinal Herb Workshop, May 6 and 7, 2016 and the Herb Harvest Fall Festival, October 7 and 8, 2016 at the Ozark Folk Center State Park next year. If I don’t see you in the future—I’ll see you in the pasture!