FAMILY: Solanaceae — Nightshade family
ETYMOLOGY: The genus Capsicum was described by Carl Linnaeus in 1753. The name is thought to be based either on the Latin capsa, or 'box', a reference to the seed pods, or the Greek kapto, meaning 'to bite', a reference to the pungent taste of the fruits.
The species Latin epithet annuum means 'annual'. Glabriusculum, the variety, means 'somewhat smooth', a description of the stems and leaves.
The common name Chiltepin comes from the Aztec language Natuatl. Chilli was the name of the chile plant in general, and tecpin, or 'flea', specifically described the chiltepin, both in its size and its bite.
OTHER COMMON NAMES: Bird pepper
GEOGRAPHIC RANGE: Wild populations occur in southern Arizona and Texas into Mexico and Central America.
HABITAT: Grows in shaded or semi-shaded areas of canyons and slopes of desert riparian habitats in mesquite and oak woodlands, 3,600 - 4,400'
BLOOMING SEASON: Summer months with fruits maturing in early fall
DESCRIPTION: Perennial shrub, 3-5' tall, but may be taller in protected areas without frost.
Thin, delicate branches grow in a zig zag pattern and are openly spaced. Leaves are small (1/2" to 2") and ovate. Whitish flowers are bell-shaped and very small (1/2" in diameter) with five lobes and bluish anthers. They mature into orange-red to bright red fruit that can be round or oval. The fruits grow on sturdy, erect pedicels that hold the berries upright, unlike most peppers that hang downwards. Pea-sized fruits are very popular with birds, particularly the curve-billed thrasher.
NOTES: Sometimes called the "mother of all peppers", the chiltepin is thought to be the ancestor of all New World pepper plants of the genus Capsicum. It has been used throughout its range for over 8,000 years as a culinary seasoning, meat preservative, and medicinal cure-all. It continues to be a popular seasoning and is an important economic crop in Sonora, Mexico.
Chiltepines have a very high Scoville rating (the measurement of pungency in chili peppers), ranging from 50,000 to 100,000 units. Even though its smokey flavor is quite hot, the chiltepin's heat subsides quickly when eaten, unlike most chiles. In wild populations, the level of heat of the peppers can be affected by rainfall, with drought conditions producing less pungent chiles.
In order to thrive in desert areas, the plant requires the presence of a nurse plant—a large tree, shrub, or cactus— or a large group of rocks that will provide shade. Under the right conditions, plants can live for than 30 years.
Throughout much of the plant's range, there has been significant habitat loss for wild populations due to urbanization and grazing. Additional losses occur through overharvesting and damage to plants during harvesting. Chiltepines are protected in the United States in the Coronado National Forest, Big Bend National Park, and Organpipe Cactus National Monument. In 1999, The Coronado National Forest established a 2,500 acre special management area to protect Arizona's largest wild population of chiltepines. The Wild Chile Botanical Area is located just north of the Arizona-Mexico border in the Tumacacori Mountains.