There are five cultivated species of Capsicum; C. annuum, C. baccatum, C. chinense, C. frutescens and C. pubescens. Of these, C. annuum contains both sweet peppers and chillies, while the fruits of the other four are all regarded as chillies, regardless of whether they are pungent or not. There are also a further 33 species of wild chillies.
All of the species are technically perennial, some more so than others, but in the temperate zones they are generally cultivated as annuals. There is considerable variation in hardiness between the species, reflecting the wide diversity of ecosystems in which they evolved.
We have been running extensive chilli trials for many years seeking out the most promising cultivars in terms of flavour and ease of cultivation. Our current list comprises improved selections from the best of these, together with the products of our own breeding program.
Gourmet Genetics mounted a display of 44 cultivars at RHS Wisley in 2015, with visitors able to taste many of them as well as several chilli powders. An estimated two thousand visitors took advantage of the opportunity, and the feedback on the diversity of flavours was extremely positive.
The most important and familiar of the Capsicum species, C. annuum boasts everything from the sweet bell peppers to fiercely pungent chillies in a great range of shapes and sizes. The commonest species in Mexico, Africa and the Indian subcontinent, many of the chillies have a characteristic sour taste which is ideal for curries, while others are sweet and form the basis of Mexican mole sauces.
A relatively obscure species of chillies from Peru, which is rapidly becoming more popular with chilli aficionados. Generally of no more than moderate pungency, the flavour is fruity, somewhat reminiscent of apples or lemons. The best varieties have great culinary potential and are well suited to domestic cultivation.
Like all Capsicum species, C. chinense is South American in origin. Many of the varieties are fiercely pungent with a fruiy flavour, but others are mild or totally without heat. This is the preferred species of chilli in the Caribbean where it plays an important role in the local cuisine. Capsicum chinense varieties generally prefer warmer growing conditions than the two preceding species, and the fruits are often irregular in shape. Growth habit is generally compact and the plants very productive.
Shrubby plants with small leaves, typically bearing numerous small erect deciduous chillies. The chillies tend to be very hot, and are prized for their dry smoky flavour. Cultivars such as Tabasco need hot humid growing conditions and do not perform well in Northern Europe, but some other cultivars are more amenable.
An oddity with purple flowers and black seeds which set it apart from the other species of chilli. Coming from the moutains of South America, the pubescent stems and leaves are an adaption to cold. The fleshy oblong chillies are of medium to hot pungency and are useful for salsa.