Pepper Profile: Cayenne

Dave DeWitt Capsicum annuum Species—Most Common Varieties Leave a Comment

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By Dave DeWitt

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Background and History

The word cayenne seems to come from kian, the name of the pepper among the Tupi Indians of northeastern South America. The pod type probably originated in what is now French Guiana and was named after either the Cayenne River or the capital of the country, Cayenne. It owes its spread around the world to Portugal, whose traders carried it to Europe, Africa, India, and Asia. Although it probably was introduced into Spain before 1500, its circuitous route caused it to be introduced into Britain from India in 1548.

A plant resembling cayenne was described in 1552 in the Aztec herbal, The Badanius Manuscript, indicating their medical use for such hot peppers: treating toothache and scabies. In 1597, the botanist John Gerard referred to cayenne as “ginnie or Indian pepper” in his herbal, and in his influential herbal of 1652, Nicholas Culpepper wrote that cayenne was “this violent fruit” that was of considerable service to “help digestion, provoke urine, relieve toothache, preserve the teeth from rottenness, comfort a cold stomach, expel the stone from the kidney, and take away dimness of sight.” Cayenne appeared in Miller’s Garden Dictionary in 1771, proving it was cultivated in England–at least in home gardens.

Botany and Gardening

The cayenne is tree-like, with multiple stems and an erect habit. It grows up to 3 feet tall and 2 feet wide. The leaves are ovate, smooth, and medium green, about 3 ½ inches wide and 2 inches long. The flower corollas are white with no spots. The pods are pendant, long, and slender, measuring up to 10 inches long and 1 inch wide. They are often wrinkled and irregular in shape. A mature plant can easily produce 40 pods. The cayenne is very pungent, measuring between 30,000 and 50,000 Scoville Units.

Grown commercially in New Mexico, Louisiana, Africa, India, Japan, and Mexico, the cayenne (C. annuum) has a growing period of about 90 days from transplanting. Surprisingly, perhaps, New Mexico is leading the way in production of cayenne chiles for hot sauces, according to Gene Jefferies of the McIlhenny Company, owner of Trappey’s, a major cayenne sauce manufacturer. In 1995, more than 1,000 acres of cayenne were planted in New Mexico. Cayenne acreage in the U.S. rose from 2500 acres in 1994 to 4500 acres in 1995. About 105 million pounds of cayenne mash (crushed cayennes with about 20 percent salt) was produced in the U.S., with Reckitt & Colman, producers of Durkee’s Red Hot, accounting for nearly one-half of that amount. In fact, 75 to 85 percent of all cayenne mash in the world is produced in the U.S. Retail sales (not including food service) of cayenne pepper sauces topped $82 million in 1995.

Recommended Varieties:

  • Charleston Hot – Very hot, large pods
  • Hot Portugal – Large, 8-inch, medium-hot pods
  • Large Red Thick – 6-inch, wrinkled, very hot pods
  • Long Red Slim – 6-inch, hot pods
  • Ring of Fire – 4-inch, hot pods
  • Super Cayenne – Hybrid, with 3 ½-inch hot pods

Cayenne as a Medicine

Cayenne is a pod type of the annuum species, and there are many cultivars, or varieties that are grown around the world. However, the cayenne you buy for use in capsules and cooking may not be made from the cayenne pod type–in fact, it probably is not. Cayenne pod types are grown around the world, mostly in Africa, India, and the United States. But in the U.S., for example, the entire crop, most of which is grown in New Mexico and West Texas, is used in the manufacture of Louisiana-style hot sauces. Virtually any small, hot red chile can be ground and placed in a capsule and called cayenne. But this is not necessarily an indictment because there is no difference in the composition of the different pod types and varieties of the annuum species, except in flavor elements and heat level. In summary, a capsule of ground piquin pods will virtually be the same in chemical composition as a capsule of ground cayenne pods. In fact, the American Spice Trade Association considers the term cayenne to be a misnomer and prefers the more generic term, red pepper.

The Thomsonian Cayenne Proponents

Samuel Thomson (1769-1843) was an early American herbalist. He was uneducated but fascinated with herbs and devoted his life to learning how to heal with them. Thomson began calling himself “doctor” after treating his family and neighbors with herbs and producing at least some curing. He called himself a “botanic physician” and believed that most diseases were caused by cold and cured with heat, so it was no wonder that he loved cayenne and prescribed it as a warming herb. He wrote in Learned Quackery Exposed:

And death is cold, and life is heat
These temper’d well, your health’s complete.

He discovered cayenne, he wrote, early in his career while searching for something that would produce “a strong heat in the body” and retain it until “cankers of the body” were removed. He tried ginger, mustard, horseradish, peppermint, but none had the desired effect. Then, in 1805, in a cabin in New Hampshire, of all places, he found a string of red peppers hanging. “I knew them to be very hot,” he wrote, “but did not know of what nature. I obtained these peppers, carried them home, reduced them to powder, and took some of the powder myself, and found it to answer the purpose better than anything else I had made use of.”

Soon Thomson began to scorn physicians as “educated quacks” and “parasites.” He built a large practice in rural Massachusetts as a herbal healer and in 1813 he patented a collection of herbal remedies which he sold outside of mainstream medicine. These were the precursors of patent medicines.

In 1818, Thomson moved to Boston and founded a movement. He sold what he called “family right certificates,” which were memberships in his society and tickets to buy his medications. He eventually sold 100,000 of these certificates, raising an astonishing (for those days) two million dollars. His medications were wildly popular and eventually were sold in regular drug stores in addition to his own outlets.

Thomson had six “courses” of treatment, which were special combinations of botanical medicines. The courses included powders, tinctures, syrups, enemas, and infusions, along with hot sweat baths. Purging, or vomiting, was encouraged with the liberal use of lobelia.

Along with lobelia, cayenne was one of his favorite herbs. “It is one of the safest and best articles ever discovered to remove disease,” he wrote in 1835. “The medical faculty never considered it much of value, and the people had not knowledge of it as a medicine, till I introduced it, by making use of it in my practice.”

Thomson combined the cayenne with lobelia, gave the tincture in a tea of witch-hazel leaves, and it had the effect he was looking for: “It would retain the heat in the stomach after puking.” Two years later, Thomson discovered hot pepper sauce and began to prescribe that as well!

“I have made use of cayenne in all kinds of disease,” Thomson proclaimed, “and have given it to patients of all ages and under every circumstance that has come under my practice; and can assure the public that it is perfectly harmless. It is no doubt the most powerful stimulant known; being powerful only in raising and maintaining that heat on which life depends.”

Thomson recommended as the “stock medicine for a family,” one ounce of lobelia, two ounces of cayenne, a half-pound of poplar bark, a pound of ginger, and a pint of his rheumatic drops. This supply would last a family through a year of illnesses of all kinds, and the cost would be far less than traditional medicines.

The medical establishment, of course, derided the Thomsonians as “puke doctors and steamers.” Thomson replied:

On lab’rers’ money Lawyers feast,
Also the Doctor and the Priest;
Although their offices are three,
They will oppress where’er they be

By 1839, he reached the height of his popularity, with an estimated three million adherents–one sixth of the population of the country. But by 1850, Thomsonian medicine had totally fallen out of fashion. It had, however, profoundly influenced the next step in botanically-oriented medicine, eclectic medicine, which flourished from the 1840s until the turn of the century. Eclectic medicine eventually evolved into naturopathy.

Patent Medicines with Cayenne

In 1909 and again in 1912, the British Medical Association published two volumes concerning “secret remedies”–the classic patent medicines. The association performed chemical analysis of these remedies, and found that many of them contained high quantities of capsicum or cayenne. For example, the Home Doctor Backache and Kidney Pills promised to “induce the kidneys to perform their proper functions.” They contained twenty percent chile powder along with oil of juniper, potassium nitrate, magnesia, sugar, and soap.

Towle’s Pennyroyal and Steel Pills contained an astonishing 43 percent chile powder, while Levasco (“The Great Indian Gout and Rheumatic Cure”) was a topical treatment. It guaranteed: “Earache cured in 2 minutes, toothache cured in 2 minutes, gout cured in a few hours.” It contained three grains of oleoresin capsicum along with camphor, oil of lavender, oil of rosemary, and soap.

Mother Siegel’s Curative Syrup contained tincture of capsicum, along with dilute hydrochloric acid, aloe, and water. It was touted as “a cure for impurities in the blood” as well as “a cure for dyspepsia and liver complaints.” The advertising copy, which ignored the tincture of capsicum, read: “So let’s get rid of the smoke by putting out the fire, and purify our blood with Mother Siegel’s Syrup, which will sweep away the poisons and make us healthy and strong.”

Box’s Pills and Golden Fire were pills and a liniment that were taken together “in severe cases of rheumatism.” The pills contained a large quantity of chile powder along with powdered gentian, flour, aloe, and soap. The liniment contained a decoction of capsicum plus the oils of amber, rosemary, eucalyptus, and camphor. Golden Fire treated not only rheumatism but also gout, neuralgia, sprains, asthma, bronchitis, enlarged joints, and tumors. It was both rubbed on the throat and gargled with water as a cure for sore throat and diphtheria, and it was recommended for toothache as well.

Culinary Uses of Cayenne

Cayenne is either dried and made into powder or processed for manufacture into Louisiana-style hot sauces. As mentioned above, powdered “cayenne” that is found in supermarkets may not actually be from that pod type; it is a generic term for hot red chile powder.
Editor’s Note: Parts of this profile were adapted from:

The Pepper Garden (Ten Speed Press, 1993)

The Hot Sauce Bible (The Crossing Press, 1996)

The Healing Powers of Peppers (Clarkson Potter, 1998)

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