September 29, 2003

Peppers Take Spotlight in Cornell Plantations Tour

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Who knew a vegetable could have so much personality? Cornell Plantations gardener Glenn Bucien certainly did: he chose them to be displayed in a special section of the Pounder Heritage Vegetable Garden, an edible garden with a scholarly Cornell flair.

The garden follows the popularity of different types of vegetables throughout American history and has a special spotlight section for a new vegetable every few years. The presence of this piquant vegetable was first made known to the public this past weekend on a warm Saturday afternoon. Avid pepper enthusiasts, and this reporter, gathered to hear the story of the pepper.

Bucien began the tour by offering background on the vegetable: peppers originated in Bolivia and regions of the Amazon and eventually spread to Central America and parts of North America by birds. And why would birds be so naive as to actually consume such a fiery fare? Bucien explained that birds lack the ability to detect capsaicin, the substance in peppers that gives them their kick; once ingested though, the seeds of the pepper remain preserved because the birds’ beaks cannot grind them down.

Columbus found the pepper several hundred years later, Bucien said, and returned home with the new spice where it spread all over the continent.

The history of the pepper is not just limited to consumption however, Bucien said. The health related qualities of peppers play a role in South American folk medicine as well: women in labor are frequently given hot pepper to snort — peppers contain chemicals that act as antagonists to inhibit the neural transmitter for pain and to aid in muscle contractions, Bucien clarified.

In tropical countries, peppers are commonly used in many recipes as an antibacterial agent that keeps food preserved for longer periods of time.

Like almost everything in nature today, humans have had their effect on peppers, Bucien said. Although uncommonly known, only hot peppers are normally found in nature; the “hot” gene dominates, while the “sweet” gene is recessive, Bucien added. Through selective breeding, food scientists have now been able to create as many, if not more varieties of sweet as hot peppers. Moreover, the mild green peppers that are widely consumed today are not meant to be green or mild: we eat them in their unripened form, their normal color and flavor being spicy red.

With this fun fact, the Heritage Garden Tour concluded, turning out to be more interesting than well, just a bunch of vegetables.

Archived article by Gretchen Heckman