How Did Spicy Peppers Evolve -Why Are they Hot?


Spicy peppers are loved around the world. A staple of cuisines from Latin America to Asia, these peppers had evolved long before humans ever knew of their existence or took an interest in them. The origin and the process of how they turned from the wild plants to the wide variety of chili peppers humans enjoy today are quite fascinating.

Wild peppers evolved to produce capsaicin to repel their predators—namely animals, bugs, mold, and fungi—while having no unpleasant effects on birds, who helped spread the seeds around Latin America. Thousands of years later, humans discovered and began domesticating them as spicy chili peppers.

That humble pepper plant has since been developed into a wide variety of spicy peppers. An integral part of cuisine in places across the world such as India and Thailand, spicy peppers have found their place and continue growing in popularity. Read on to learn more about their origins!

Photo by Maneesh Upadhyay

How Did Spicy Peppers Evolve?

There are a few possible ways researchers believe peppers evolved in spice and population, though similar in theory.

Origins in Latin America

The original spicy pepper plant grew in the wild in the lowlands of Brazil. This area of Brazil, known as the “nuclear area,” was extremely conducive to the survival of peppers and, to this day, has the greatest variety of chili peppers anywhere in the world. But how did it get to this point?

What did Spicy Peppers Start as? What did They Evolve From?

The “original” chili pepper was round and red and looked like a berry. Over time, the little fruits started developing capsaicin to repel rodents, bugs, and fungi with their heat, although birds are still immune to this chemical (more on this later).

Attracting birds who could eat the seeds without any unpleasant effects, the seeds of spicy peppers evolved to be more difficult to remove until they are fully mature; this deterred birds from eating any plants that could not survive on their own while young.

As the birds ate and spread these now-matured seeds around, more types of spicy peppers continued to develop and change to best grow in the areas in which they landed. The result? There are currently 26 species of chili peppers that grow in the wild!

Why Did Peppers Evolve to Be Spicy?

Across all species, whether plant or animal, the purpose of evolution is survival. When survival is threatened, a species must adapt certain characteristics to have the best chance of survival in their environment.

Spicy peppers originated in a warm part of the world—Latin America—which had several environmental factors which threatened their continued existence.

Latin America is home to a lot of different wildlife, rodents included, but rodents were not conducive to the wild peppers’ survival. They would eat them, grinding the seeds up with their teeth, making them unable to be replanted and reproduce. Bugs also thrive in the warm, humid heat of Latin America, and they presented a similar threat to wild peppers. The holes they would leave in the peppers led to them being more prone to developing diseases and fungi that killed them.

The peppers’ survival and the continuation of their species in the place where they originated were threatened, so they “learned” how to adapt. The peppers that managed to escape the rodent jaws, bugs, fungi, and infections began producing a chemical called capsaicin, which caused a burning sensation to any animal that consumed them. The rodents and bugs, not enjoying this uncomfortable feeling, stopped eating the peppers which allowed them to flourish.

The Spread of Spicy Peppers

Despite the effects of the capsaicin, birds—which do not have the same receptors that trigger the burning sensation that mammals do—continued to eat the spicy peppers.

Jalape_o_Pepper_Lines (4) x
Jalape_o_Pepper_Lines (4)

Because birds do not have teeth, they would eat the seeds whole and excrete them whole. This gave the seeds a chance to embed themselves in the soil and grow. As a result, they began to spread around these new areas. Since the peppers had developed spiciness and the plants “learned” that this spiciness helped them survive in the past, they continued growing with this evolved trait.

The relationship between these peppers and birds ultimately became symbiotic, meaning that they benefited each other. Birds were able to eat the pepper and gain nourishment without any adverse effects. Simultaneously, spicy peppers could continue to thrive across many regions of Latin America and eventually the world.

Human Domestication

Around 6,000 years ago, presumably, after birds had spread the seeds and humans discovered them, the chili pepper was domesticated and grown as crops in Northern Mexico. These crops produced what is now known as chili peppers.

Are Spicy Peppers Still Evolving?

In a way, spicy peppers are still evolving, but they do so with a helping hand from humans. The first spicy peppers were just spicy enough to keep rodents and bugs away. However, humans decided they liked the taste of these peppers and began to develop them through crossbreeding and altering their chemical makeup, trying to see how spicy they could be. In fact, the contest for spiciest pepper is still an ongoing battle!

Other people began to hybridize spicy peppers, not necessarily to see how spicy they could make the peppers but also to create different tastes and textures. Some of these peppers include the following:

Jalapeños

One of the most popular spicy peppers is the Jalapeño pepper. This pepper evolves and changes in the wild, as well as by human hand. If you want the “original” Jalapeño look for heirloom seeds.

One such change by the human hand resulted in the Chipotle pepper. Chipotle peppers are Jalapeños that have been fully ripened (indicated by a red color), which are then smoked and dried.

Jalapeños are also crossbred with other peppers to create new varieties, which include:

  • The Orange Spice Jalapeño: A beautiful, brightly colored pepper, which is a combination of Early Jalapeños and Permagreen Bell Peppers
  • The Farmer’s Jalapeno: A rare type of Jalapeño with unique looking tough brownish skin, which gives them a potato-like appearance

Serrano Peppers

The Serrano pepper is another spicy pepper, popular in Latin American cooking, that has evolved and created different varieties both naturally and through hybridization. Some of the many varieties include:

  • Serrano: This wild pepper has grown on its own in the wild and can be either red or green when ripe.
  • Serrano del sol: This is a hybridized version of the Serrano pepper, which grows both more quickly and larger than the original.
  • Serrano purples: There are actually two varieties of this hybridized Serrano: one grows in Mexico, and the other grows in Brazil. The Mexican variety, which is the most well-known, has the same shape as the standard Serrano but is a bit longer and boasts a beautiful purple color when ripe. 

Final Thoughts

Spicy peppers have a long history that spans millennia. Their roots began as berry look-alikes, which eventually evolved to include the spicy capsaicin to keep predators far away—although birds were the one species that could still eat them. After thousands of years of being spread around the continent, farmers discovered their prevalence and began to domesticate and raise them as crops.

However, the journey of spicy peppers does not end there and is still far from over. To this day, we continue to explore their possibilities, and there is a never-ending search for the ultimate spicy pepper to end all spicy peppers. And as long as humans exist, the search for and evolution of these unique peppers will continue.  

Supriya

Hi! I'm Supriya. I'm a home cook, bulldog mom, spicy food lover, and founder of The Spicy Trio. I have been a home cook for about 15 years and have been growing plants for the past six years.

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