Peppers are among the most popular vegetables and fruits (yes, both!). Many of the world’s cuisines are unimaginable without their influence. It is no wonder – because peppers have a lot to offer.
Since Europeans brought back the first peppers from South America to the Old World at the end of the 15th century, thousands of pepper cultivars have been created through selection and hybridization – and the process continues. Each one is at least slightly different than the others in terms of look, taste, texture, aroma, and zest.
Peppers are, of course, known for their spiciness. The hot pepper varieties, widely called chilies, also compete in terms of pungency or hotness. Pepper hotness has its own measurement system – the Scoville Scale, with Scoville Heat Units (SHU) as the main measure of the amount of “heat.” There is an entire gastronomic “subculture” dedicated to praising pungent pepper varieties – the more, the better! They’re called the pepperheads.
If you are getting all warmed up about growing peppers (pun intended), you must have been wondering:
What are the cultivated species of peppers?
What are some famous pepper cultivars?
How hot are certain pepper varieties?
Luckily for you, here is where you’ll fin your answers – and more.
In this particular article, I’ll cover as much information on pepper types and their classification.
Since it is unfortunately impossible to include all the varieties, I’ve prepared a couple of notable cultivars examples for each of the five pepper species – all are listed below.
One more thing, if want to learn how care of a pepper plant then we have you covered.
What is a pepper classified as?
All peppers fall into the botanical genus Capsicum, a part of the Nightshade family (Solanaceae). The Nightshade “membership” means that peppers are “cousins” of tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplants, originating from Latin America. The genus numbers around 25 species (20-27 species, depending on the classification), and all are herbaceous, shrubby plants, annual or perennial, originating from tropical and subtropical parts of South America.
However, out of all these species, only a limited number are cultivated and represent “peppers” as we know them.
This brings us to our next question.
How many species of peppers are there?
When we talk about “true” edible peppers, there are only five species in cultivation. These are:
All of these species have different botanical features but also distinct culinary properties and different uses. And they all deliver different cultivars.
Yes, the cultivars. A ‘Cultivar’ is actually short for “cultivated variety,” meaning that all cultivars were purposefully grown to get a unique plant variety – in this case, a pepper variety. Each cultivar has unique properties.
As you probably know, in layman’s terms, we divide peppers into “sweet” and “hot.” The sweet ( peppers are known as Bell peppers or Capsicum, and smaller, hot peppers are called Chili peppers. Interestingly, sweet peppers are found only within the C. annuum species – other pepper species produce other species produce hot peppers exclusively, along with some C. annuum varieties as well.
Let’s explore some of the most notable, interesting, and weirdest pepper cultivars from each species. In the end, we’ll also mention “false” peppers – two species sometimes confused with two peppers.
Capsicum annuum and its cultivars
Capsicum annuum is probably the most cultivated, influential, diverse, and economically important of all pepper species. That is sort of proven by the fact that you must have tasted their most famous cultivars.
We’ll cover one C. annuum type from each category – sweet, hot, and decorative.
Just to spice things up, we’ll start with the least known pepper category – the ornamentals. However, “spicing things up” Isn’t a mere phrase in this case – fruits of C. annuum decorative varieties’ are edible and really hot.
‘Black pearl’ is a decorative, bushy C. annuum cultivar, with striking deep dark purple foliage that sometimes looks almost black. If you haven’t had enough of black plants in the garden, well, you’re in luck with ‘Black pearl’ – the small rounded fruits also start off as black (hence the variety’s name) before turning to cherry red as they mature, offering a striking contrast against the foliage.
Don’t be fooled by the “ornamental classification” – the “pearls” are edible and potently hot, measuring 30,000 SHUs – similar to Cayenne pepper.
“Bell peppers” is a name for a group of cultivars characterized by large fruits and a complete absence of pungency. In fact, Bell peppers constitute the lowest point of the Scoville scale – their SHU measure is zero. They are widely used in cuisines all over the world.
First of all, all sweet pepper species, most notably bell peppers, originate from C. annuum species. Secondly, some notable chili pepper species, such as cayenne peppers, are also descendants of the species.
Most bell pepper cultivars are named and categorized according to their colors. The most notable are Red bell peppers, Yellow bell peppers, Orange bell peppers, Green bell peppers, and Purple bell peppers. Although all taste similar, there are still subtle differences in their aromas.
Typical bell peppers have – you’ve guessed it – a bell-like shape with a rounded tip. However, there are also sweet peppers that have a more elongated form with a pointy tip. In general, these are called long sweet peppers, with many local names.
Cayenne peppers are hot, chili C. annuum varieties. The fruit’s hotness measures 30,000 – 50,000 SHUs, which is considered “somewhat hot.” They are small, 2-5 inches long, elongated and pointy chilis.
The most common form of Cayenne pepper is dried powder – meaning it is predominantly consumed as a spice rather than fresh.
Other notable Capsicum annuum notable chili varieties include
Thai chili peppers
However, all of these chilies are considered moderately pungent. The record breakers, according to the level of hotness measured by the Scoville scale, belong to the next species.
Capsicum chinense and its varieties
Capsicum chinense, also known as Habanero-type peppers, are a group of short, plump peppers celebrated for their interesting flavors but, above all, for their incredible pungency. C. chinense cultivars hold the records of the hottest peppers in the world and have mindblowing SHU values.
You may think that their unique potency has something to do with the fact that, judging by their name, they originate from another part of the world. However, the confusing Latin name that insinuates that Habanero-types are from China doesn’t tell the truth. In reality, C. chinense originates from South America, like all other peppers.
The wrong nomenclature originated in the 18th-century Netherlands when the botanist Nikolaus Joseph von Jacquin named it so because of its popularity in Chinese cuisine.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the best-known Habanero-type varieties.
Habanero is a legendary type of chili with medium-sized fruit. Believe it or not, it was grown 8,500 years ago, first in the Brazilian Rainforest, then it was transferred by the Mayans to Yucatan, Mexico, only to be picked up by the Spanish in the 18th century from Cuba (hence the name) and spread first to Europe and then the rest of the world (yes, including China).
Yucatan is still the largest producer of Habanero peppers in the world – because of the soil and climate properties, their quality is superior, unlike anywhere else in the world.
There are plenty of Habanero varieties, and they come in nearly all known pepper colors – red, dark chocolate, orange, and white. Each has a slightly different flavor. Speaking about flavor, Habaneros are not one of the world’s favorites only because they’re hot. They have a unique flavor which is best described asfruity-floral and sweet, with a crunchy texture. The final touch is the impressive zest.
Of course, when talking about these peppers, we cannot disregard their pungency. Habanero peppers count as ‘Very Hot’ by the Scoville system, measuring 100,000 to 350,000 Scoville Heat Units.
While Habanero is an archetype of hot pepper, hundreds of C. chinense varieties are much hotter than the “original.” We’re about to explore the hottest pepper variety in the world currently
Behold, it’s the current holder of the Guinness World Record for the hottest pepper variety – the Carolina Reaper. It was created in Rock Hill, South Carolina, by the US pepper breeder Ed Currie (also known as Smokin’ Ed). He crossed the Naga Viper pepper from Pakistan with a scorching hot La Soufriere pepper from Saint Vincent.
The very look of this pepper is threatening – it is vivid bright red, with a gnarled shape, bumpy texture, and a small pointy tail that got it its name.
The taste of this pepper was described as sweet and fruity on the first bite, which, however, quickly turns into to a hellish burning sensation. The measured average hotness for the batch considered by Guinness measured 1,641,183 Scoville Heat Units (SHU), with the hottest individual pepper being 2.2 million SHUs hot!
The official record was set in 2017, propelling the Carolina Reaper above the Trinidad Scorpion “Butch T” pepper – you’ve guessed it, another C. chinense variety.
Other famous C. chinense varieties include
Trinidad Moruga Scorpion
Bhut Jolokia or Ghost Pepper
Capsicum baccatum are much less popular worldwide than the varieties of the two previous species – but that doesn’t mean they don’t have lots to offer to pepper enthusiasts and that they don’t make crucial ingredients of their native land’s cuisines.
First of all, the looks of C. baccatatum varieties are quite distinguishable.
Some, such as the Bishop’s crown, have a peculiar fruit shape. Others, like Amarillo chili, have specific color hues. Besides the unusual fruit form, they are known for their zest, which measures around 30,000 – 50,000 SHUs for all varieties, and interesting aromas that are citrus-like in some cases. The most notable varieties are:
Amarillo chili (Ají Amarillo)
Lemon drop (Ají limón)
The Bishop’s crown (Capsicum baccatum var. pendulum) definitely has the strangest-looking pepper fruit on this list. It is hanging downward, with a widening bottom that splits into three directions, resembling a hat or a crown. Starting off as light green, the “hat” becomes deep red as it matures.
The SHUu rating is quite broad – from 5,000 to 30,000 SHUs. That’s another fun element to this pepper – you cannot be sure how hot it is going to be.
Flavor is more predictable, though. Bishop’s crown peppers can be consumed both green and red, but the flavor varies. In its early, greenish days, the fruit has a more veggie-like taste and then becomes more fruity as it ripens.
Amarillo chili or Aji Amarillo
Amarillo chili got its name from the Spanish word for the color Yellow (Amarillo). However, this pepper is orange when it matures, providing a signature transition from yellow to orange.
It represents one segment of the “holy trinity” of Peruvian cuisine (the other two are garlic and red onion). Thus, it is not hard to deduce that it is readily grown in Peru and used in many traditional dishes. Besides the heat, rated 30,000 to 50,000 on the Scoville scale, its the unique fruity aroma that gives the Amarillo pepper such a prominent role in the local cuisine – people say its aroma is somewhere between mango and passion fruit while smelling like raisins. Interesting, right?
Capsicum frutescens is considered a wild pepper species closely related to C. chinense. Its main distinction is its small narrow fruits which grow erect throughout their maturation cycle instead of hanging down. Also, as they mature, they gradually change color from pale yellow to vivid red. These interesting features have made many C. frutescens varieties predominantly ornamental peppers.
There is one exception, though – a variety of C. frutescencs chili called Tabasco pepper that rose to its commercial fame as an ingredient of the famous Tabasco sauce.
Tabasco pepper originates from Mexico. At first glance, there is not much difference between this variety and other C. frutescens descendants. However, the Tabasco chili has one of the rare pepper fruits that is both juicy and pungent at the same time – other hot varieties across different pepper species are mostly dry on the insides of their skins. Also, it has a distinct smokey-tomato flavor.
The heat rating on the Scoville slape is 30,000 to 50,000 SHUs.
The interesting properties of Tabasco peppers have made them the main ingredient of one of the world’s most famous hot sauce brands – the Tabasco Sauce.
Interestingly and shockingly, the world could have lost the tabasco pepper after the tobacco mosaic virus devastated the plantations in the 1960s. Only a decade later, the first virus-resistant cultivar called Greenleaf tabasco was created.
Here is the weirdest pepper cousin on the list. If peppers were human, this one would be sitting in the corner. An outcast – but equipped with a set of unique talents.
Of all the domesticated pepper species, Capsicum pubescens is the rarest in cultivation and most genetically distant from other pepper species. To make the story even more interesting, it is unknown in the wild, and no one is sure from where it really came.
Named for its hairy leaves – a unique trait in the pepper world, Capsicum pubescens produces medium-sized rounded fruits that can come in various warm hues. More of the botanical trademarks that make it stand out from other pepper species are black seeds, purple flowers, and sometimes a climbing habit.
Capsicum pubescens is commercially insignificant globally, and outside of its homeland, it is grown primarily by pepper hobbyists and enthusiasts. Still, in its Central and South American homeland, it is popular to grow and has a wide variety of uses. Research shows that the species has at least 31 local cultivars.
To Sum It Up
The five species of domesticated peppers offer an astounding variety of cultivars with an amazing range of colors, shapes, and pungency levels. Hopefully, after reading this article, you’ve become more familiar with the classification of one of the world’s most favorite vegetables (that is actually a fruit!) – and that you’ll give some of the new discoveries a chance in your pepper pots.