King's College London
Online Exhibitions
Fruits of the earth: plants in the service of mankind

Peppers and spice

A capsicum annuum plant, with red pepper visibleA capsicum annum plantThe capsicum annum is the most widely cultivated of the domesticated plants of the capsicum genus. Recognisable to many as a product that spices up meals and late-night takeaways and whose red, yellow and green varieties populate supermarket shelves, ‘all the species yield a spice of the most pungent quality ... to excite the most languid appetite’.

Many varieties of the capsicum genus are cultivated around the world and more than 200 common names are in use for the species including ‘chilli pepper’, ‘cayenne’ and ‘bell pepper’.

Their fruit and flowers vary greatly – in appearance and in pungency. Its name is derived from the Greek, ‘to bite’, due to its pungency and it has a long history of use in Britain, with a description in this work recording that, ‘it appears to have been long known in this country, being mentioned by Gerrarde’. An opening from Gerard’s Herbal also features in this online exhibition.

The capsicum is cultivated not only for its value when added to food, but also as an ornamental plant. Furthermore, and justifying its inclusion in this three-volume work on medical botany, it has a variety of medicinal uses, including as a remedy for indigestion, being described as ‘a useful stimulant in dyspepsia and an admirable carminative for flatulency from vegetable food’.

This edition was edited by Gilbert Burnett, a former professor of botany at King’s. All the plates in the work are hand-coloured.

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