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Herbally Fresh - Kitchen: Spices

Peppers

This spice does more than flavor chili.

I grew lots of different kinds of peppers in my garden this year just for the fun of it. I have heard they are really good for you. Can you tell me why and what the difference is between the different kinds? What is the best way to use them? Are they really good medicine?

Bell, banana, Thai, serrano, Anaheim, Ancho, paprika, pimiento, jalapeno, wax, scotch bonnets, cayenne, cherry? the subject of peppers is a field of study in itself. Peppers, like tomatoes and potatoes, are in the Solanaceae (nightshade) family. They fall into the genus Capsicum (from the Greek word kapto, which means "to bite"). Botanists have classified 27 species, and the long list of garden varieties are includesd within these species. Capsicum annum includes most of the peppers we grow because of their fleshy edible fruits. It is the most cultivated species in the world. Capsicum frutescens is the shrub from which the cayenne or Tabasco peppers come; these peppers have long, thin-skinned fruits with hot-tasting seeds inside. Capsicum chinense includes the habaneros, of which there are many types and heats.

More species of wild peppers grow in South America than anywhere else, and they represent the ancestors of our cultivated pepper plants. During excavations at Tehuacan in Mexico, archaeologists found pepper seeds dating to 7,500 BC. It is believed that birds had something to do with the spread of pepper plants, even into our desert Southwest. Pungent is the word most frequently used to describe the taste of peppers. Peppers used to be divided into "sweet" and "hot" categories, but there is so much variety now that that distinction has been dropped. Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) wrote about cayenne in his well known book Culpeper's Complete Herbal:

"All kinds of Pepper are under Mars, and are of fiery, sharp, biting taste and of a temperature hot and dry?.the vapour from them occasions sneezing, coughing and even vomiting, and if the hands touch the nose, or eyes after handling them, inflammation of those parts will follow: but though dangerous, they have great medicinal properties." He goes on to list numerous ailments that remedies made from Capsicum frutescens can cure.

Scoville Heat Units measure the degree of heat in peppers, ranging from 0 to the habanero's 300,000. When a pepper's heat is too much for your taste, try eating bread, rice, yogurt or sour cream to calm the taste buds down--not water!

Peppers contain lots of vitamin C and flavonoids which contribute to vascular health. Medicinally, they are used both internally and externally: cayenne is the one most frequently used for therapeutic benefit. When ingested, cayenne acts as a peripheral vasodilator, stimulating blood flow. It also activates mucous membranes, and that is why we sweat, tear up and sniffle when we eat it. It is very warming, and thus useful when someone complains of cold hands and feet. Capsicum stimulates digestion, too, and can diminish colic and flatulence.

Topically, capciscum is used in skin ointments and liniments to increase circulation and ease pain in sore, cold limbs. Capsaicin is the constituent that is credited with making it an effective rubefactant (producing redness in the skin through stimulation of the circulatory system), analgesic and anti-inflammatory. I like to think that the heat of peppers can counteract any condition of sluggishness, whether mental or physical. If you are hung over, chilled, congested in the nose or chest, or feel like half that pepperoni pizza that you ate before going to bed is still sitting in your stomach, try some hot pepper. I usually put a quarter teaspoon of the ground herb in a cup of water and drink it down. Consuming hot pepper regularly can have an antioxidant effect, because it helps the body clear itself through the blood, mucous membranes and digestive tract.

Because pepper can be so stimulating to the body, it should be used with caution during pregnancy. Do not apply it to injured or inflamed skin. When left on the skin too long, hot peppers can cause blistering. When handling hot peppers of any kind, be careful not to touch your fingers to mucous membranes like the eyes or nose.

Black pepper (Piper nigrum), the ground kind we put on our food, is from the Piperaceae family, not related to the capsicums. It is the dried, unripe fruit of a climbing shrub that grows in tropical climates. Black, green, red and white peppercorns are made from the same berries, harvested at different times and processed differently. White peppercorns are soaked, skinned and dried red fruits. This aromatic and pungent pepper also has medicinal value. It is a useful digestive aid, because it causes an increase in secretions of the mouth, stomach, liver and gut. White pepper is an antimicrobial (inhibits bacteria) antioxidant that can relieve pain when used topically. Perfumers use it to achieve certain "notes."

Some of my students claim red hot pepper is good for whatever ails you. They tell stories about gargling with it to get rid of a sore throat. Even if you only use them in your favorite salsa, you are doing your body a favor. Learning more about the benefits and flavors of peppers can enhance both your health and culinary experience.


Merry Harrison, RH(AHG) is a clinical herbalist, teacher, author and wildcrafter.
For class schedule and to ask questions: www.millcreekherbs.com


Reprinted with permission: Catalyst Magazine


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