By Clive Larkman
The Columbian Exchange is accepted as a generic term for the mass movement of food, culture and disease between the Old World (Europe) and the New World (Central and South America). A simple phrase that says so little but covers so much. The movement of food and culture between two hemispheres in the late 15th Century changed the world. There are so many products that we accept as local which are really part of this exchange, and therefore are anything but local.
The movement from New to Old World includes dietary staples such as tomato, potato, chilli, eggplant, tobacco, maize, and sweet potatoes. Some of these are so prevalent that many folk consider them as indigenous to their nations. There would be few Italians who don’t believe tomatoes are part of Italian culture, or Irish that realise potatoes are a relatively recent addition to the Irish diet. Most Indians would believe that chillis have been part of their food culture for hundreds of years, and most Asian countries have their own ‘chillies.’
Capsicum is the genus that includes chilli and has been a staple part of the diet of the peoples from Central and South America. There are five species and their hybrids in the ‘chilli’ group, although the genus has in excess of twenty-five species. They come from the Americas where several species have been in cultivation for over 5000 years. The five species cultivated around the world (as chillis) are: Capsicum annum, C. frutescens, C.pubescens, C. chinense, and C. baccatum. All species come from north, central or southern America, so C. chinense is a misnomer. It was so named as an early botanist suspected that it came from mainland China.
The genus Capsicum is a member of the family Solanaceae (the Nightshade family) which includes many staple food plants like capsicum, potato, tomato, eggplant, and a couple of drugs; tobacco and datura. It also includes petunia and belladonna. All are from South America and for some reason many of the plants in this family are high in a variety of chemicals that have strong effects on human physiology. Some are good and some are toxic but most have some medicinal benefit in the right concentrations.
Indeed, the chemical that gives chillies their heat is called capsaicin. It generally occurs in the septa in the fruit and in the white pith around the seeds. It does not occur in the seeds themselves and is present in smaller quantities in the flesh of the fruit. It binds with receptors on the skin of mammals and creates a ‘burning sensation.’ The process is believed to assist the fruit in surviving bacterial and fungal infections.
The various species interbreed quite easily with the exception of Capsicum pubescens. This species differs extensively from the others in that it has purple flowers, a different floral structure, and grows in a geographically distinct region. Of all the species this is the hardest to cross with other species manually, and is not known to cross in the wild. The flowers are purple and the seed black with hairy (or pubescent) foliage and a longer than normal life span. As a species, it evolved in the central western region of South America including the countries of Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador. The species was quickly spread across the western side of the Andes, south and north into Central America. It’s current range is from the deep south of Chile, southern Argentina along western South America and up to the northern parts of Mexico.
C. pubescens doesn’t cross easily and has relatively stable seed production. However, any plant that is grown across a wide geographic area with little or no exchange of genetic material will by default generate some differentiation. When this region has distinct cultural and language groups the nomenclature will be different. This has happened extensively with C. pubescens; more with the name and cultivars than the genetic make-up. It is found primarily in Central and South America and is known only in cultivation.
We have one stable species with dozens of cultivars (available here), if not hundreds in the native region. We also have three ‘common’ names for the species; Manzano, Rocoto and Locoto. It is consumed fresh, as a paste, dried, or ground, by all the peoples in a large strip of countries across Central and western South America. It is called Locoto in Bolivia and Argentina (luqutu), Rocoto (rukutu, ruqutu) in Peru and Ecuador, and Manzano in the predominantly Spanish speaking countries of Mexico and Central America. Whereas the other common names are forms of the local language, Manzano comes from the Spanish for “apple” due to its apple-shaped fruit.
This naming issue has caused much debate in western countries that are just now starting to understand the genus. We have been calling them all Manzano with some usage of the name Rocoto. Indeed, they will often be listed as Chilli Manzano Rocoto. Then there will be a serious debate between those which originate in the different regions. They will argue strongly based on what their families have grown for years, but often lack the broader experience to have tasted or used fruit from across the regions. It is not possible to say that a cultivar is Manzano, Rocoto or Locoto based on the flavour or heat levels. For each name there are small, medium and large, or mild, medium and hot cultivars. All three have fruit that are eaten green, red and yellow.
All forms are common in having thick, moist walls, dark purple/black seeds and the ability to live for 10-15 years. All are more tolerant of cold climates and have low tolerance for extreme heat.
So, yes, the fruit is a Manzano and is a Rocoto and also a Locoto, if the common name is referring to the species. However, most cultivars have originated in one of the three regions so the cultivar name should be preceded with the relevant common name for that region.
One side issue is that in the late nineteenth century the species made its way to Indonesia where it is widely grown across the archipelago. There is a lack of definite knowledge on how it made its way there. The Dutch still had a strong presence in Brazil and Indonesia up until the early twentieth century. My suspicion is that the plants moved across from Peru through Brazil and into the Dutch trade. From there it is easy to see how the plants became part of the diet of the Dutch East Indies. There are multiple cultivars and even a white form in Indonesia. As they have probably come from Peru via Brazil, they are probably Rocoto forms – but this is only a guess.
Main photo: Various capsicums (Image: Barbara Jackson, Pixabay)