Capsicum minimum/Capsicum frutescens
Chilli peppers originate in tropical South America, where according to some archeoethnobotanists they have been cultivated for over 7000 years. In tropical regions they develop into perennial bushes, which grow up to 2 meters high and can live to about 10 years. Their degree of pungency is equally varied and depends not only on genetic make up, but also on weather and soil conditions. Apparently environmental stress factors increase pungency levels. (Interestingly, in Africa it is believed that the person who plants the pepper seeds should be very angry in order to make the chillies grow really hot.) Chillies spread to Central American regions in pre-Columbian times. Columbus, who went to the New World in search of black pepper, was rewarded with a far more potent spice than he had bargained for: Chilli peppers. He took some seeds back to Europe, but they did not immediately become popular there as a culinary treat. Instead, they were planted as ornamentals in monastery gardens. Spanish and Portuguese traders introduced them to Africa and Asia, where they became an instant hit. Chillies found their way into Central Europe with the Turks in the days when the Ottoman Empire extended as far north as Hungary.
Chillies have a very beneficial effect on the circulatory system. Studies have shown that they counteract cholesterol build up and to reduce platelet aggregation, thus reducing the risk of heart attacks and strokes. They also lower high blood pressure and increase peripheral circulation. The same studies have found that incidence of heart disease is much lower in populations who regularly consume Chillies in their diet. Taken internally, the 'heat component' of Chilli peppers has a two-fold effect: It produces a powerful burning sensation, which causes profuse salivation and perspiration. By reflex the stomach secretions are also stimulated, aiding digestion. The immediate effect on the circulatory system is an instant rush, a warming feeling throughout the body, which soon turns into an overall cooling effect, as perspiration takes body heat to the surface, where it evaporates and thus cools down the body. This is one reason why hot foods are popular in hot countries. Simultaneously, the mucous membranes are stimulated, greatly aiding decongestion, especially when feeling under the weather or suffering symptoms of an approaching cold. Overall, this eliminative action leaves one feeling internally cleansed, perked up, glowing, relaxed, yet hyper alert, a feeling that has often been likened to a natural high. This blissful state is in fact the result of an endorphin rush, which occurs in response to the onslaught on the nerve receptors. Athletes experience the same kind of endorphin rush after intense physical exertion. Externally, Chilies have mostly been used as a rubefacient or 'counter-irritant' application as a plaster, poultice or ointment to treat rheumatic and neuralgic pain. Drawing blood into an inflamed area helps to decongest it and spreads a sense of soothing warmth. Such external applications may be effective for a wide range of conditions, such as a painful condition of the main facial nerve known as 'trigeminal neuralgia', shingles, a painful nerve disorder resulting from long term diabetes known as 'diabetic neuropathy', osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, as well as postamputation pain. It is also used to treat pain resulting from mastectomy as well as mouth sores associated with chemotherapy or radiation treatment. Psoriasis, which has been linked to increased levels of substance P has been shown to improve with Capsaicin treatment.
Needless to say, Chilli pepper is a plant of Mars, the God of war. In Central and South America they were traditionally used in counter magic and protection rituals. Sprinkled around the house they were expected to ward of evil daemons and vampires, while burning them along with garlic and other pungent spices was intended to fumigate and purify the house. Incidentally this procedure is also reputed to dispel vermin and insects. In Latin American countries it is also a popular counter-magical device to ward off or cure the affects of the 'Evil Eye'. Strings of Chillie peppers were used for decoration (Chilli ristas) or worn as a protective necklace. Many villages in Central America are named after the type of Chilli they cultivate and still celebrate special fiestas in honour of the Chilli Saint or God. Of course, Chilli also has a great reputation as a hot aphrodisiac.