A Chinese chilli mystery

If you listened to my podcast How the chilli pepper conquered China, you may be wondering, if you care about these things as I do, why there is a chilli species called Capsicum chinense.

The chilli didn’t reach China until the 1570s or thereabouts, and capsicums in the wild are restricted to the Americas, yet C. chinense is a perfectly valid species name. Indeed, many of the hottest peppers in the world have the distinction of belonging to that species, which also includes the more familiar Habanero and Scotch Bonnet varieties.

Austrian postage stamp of von JacquinStart searching, and you learn that the species was described and named by Nikolaus Joseph von Jacquin in 1776. He was a Dutch scientist who ended up working for the Austrian crown and undertook an impressive early collecting trip in the Caribbean. Von Jacquin’s family was highly regarded in Vienna, where Mozart taught his daughter piano and wrote songs for his son. He was also one of the earliest promoters of the Linnean system of binomial nomenclature, and enjoyed a long friendship and correspondence with Linnaeus.

A most difficult taxonomic morass

There are five domesticated species of Capsicum (and some hybrids) and three of them — C. annuum (by far the most common), C. frutescens (Tabasco, and not a lot else) and C. chinense — are not easy to tell apart. Most descriptions focus on the number of flowers that grow from the base of each leaf, 2–5 in chinense as opposed to only a single flower in annuum. The three interbreed to varying extents and back in 1993 one expert said their classification “has been and continues to be a most difficult taxonomic morass”.[1] Modern molecular methods back that up; the three arise from a single ancestor and are one another’s closest relatives.

Original description of Capsicum chinense

Von Jacquin’s description[2] does not say why he thought it was from China. It does say, roughly, “I saw [them] cultivated on the island of Martinique, and seeds used in cooking.”

Original illustration of Capsicum chinense

Von Jacquin seems to have described a cultivated variety growing the gardens of Schönbrunn Palace outside Vienna. Almost 200 years later, the species was identified in the wild

Paul Smith and Charles B. Heiser Jr did an exhaustive study of wild and weedy capsicums from all over, in the course of which they found that some plants from Central and South America did not fit into any of the species they had previously recognised.[3] Though it apparently piqued them to admit it, these plants clearly belonged to what they called Capsicum sinense.

Smith and Heiser offered an “emended” description that places special emphasis on the 3–5 flowers at each node and a marked constriction at the base of the calyx. They then say:

It is unfortunate that the earliest name for this American plant appears to be Jacques’ [sic] C. sinense (as “chinense”). The plant shown in his plate, although showing only two pedicels at the nodes is almost identical to some of our collections. Our Ac. 751 (P.I. 157,062) from Lanchow, China, is a fairly close match and it in turn is almost indistinguishable from a line (Ac. 910) from Costa Rica.

I see only one pedicel at the nodes in von Jacquin’s plate, above. Maybe Smith and Heiser were looking at a different one. In any case, I quite like the fact that von Jacquin, who worked to promote Linnean binomials, gets the last laugh because he got the first name. Did the plants he described come from China? He must have thought so.

Wikipedia’s view is that von Jacquin "believed they originated in China due to their prevalence in Chinese cuisine after their introduction by European explorers,”[4] and it cites a chapter by Paul Bosland in support. Chastened by the whole spinach thing, I checked.

Bosland says “the French taxonomist who named this species in 1776 got his seed from China”. Leave aside that von Jacquin was born in The Netherlands and working in Austria at the time; what is Bosland’s source? None other than Smith and Heiser (1957).

And they say absolutely nothing about the source of von Jacquin’s seeds.

The mystery, then, abides. Maybe someone with access to the archives at Schönbrunn Palace or the University of Vienna botanical gardens could take a quick poke around and see if there is any indication of the geographical origin of the plants that von Jacquin named Capsicum chinense.


  1. Eshbaugh, W.H. 1993. History and exploitation of a serendipitous new crop discovery. p. 132–139. In: J. Janick and J.E. Simon (eds.), New crops. Wiley, New York.  ↩

  2. Images from von Jacquin’s Hortus Botanicus Vindobonensis at the Biblioteca Digital del Real Jardin Botanico de Madrid.  ↩

  3. Smith, P.G. and C.B. Heiser. 1957. Taxonomy of Capsicum sinense Jacq. and the geographic distribution of the cultivated Capsicum species. Bul. Torrey Bot. Club 84:413–420.  ↩

  4. Untrue, as they were almost certainly introduced by crew members on ships, probably Chinese, and certainly not “explorers”.  ↩

Rotting in cassava database hell

When one is seeking statistical information about a crop like, say, cassava, it is so rewarding to see a notice like this:

Statistics for cassava are extremely important for a variety of scientists, developers, economists, bankers, investors, policy makers and more.

Alas, like cassava itself, which starts to decompose almost as soon as it has been harvested, becoming unusable within 72 hours, the site that offers this validation appears to be suffering its own special form of post harvest physiological deterioration.

Go to the Cassava Statistics page of the grandiose Global Cassava Partnership for the 21st Century and you will discover that there is absolutely nothing of value there. Things that look like maybe, just perhaps, they could be links are not even broken links, although the site promises that they are:

For the convenience of the users we provide excel sheets and ppt presentations that have been organized in different ways (see above), to generate information that can be used readily.

Of course the actual statistics are from elsewhere, the FAO, no less. But FAOstat has been missing in action for as long as I can remember.

My point, though, is not just to hurl brickbats at the Global Cassava Partnership for the 21st Century,1 not even for raising false hopes in me. It is to make the larger point that whenever these time-limited projects end, the online presence that they are so keen to launch at the start, slowly rots away. Very seldom is any thought (or support) given to maintaining their value. Maybe that’s because they have no value, but in that case, why not just give them a decent burial and be done with it?

I believe they may well have value, as an historical record if nothing else, as a source of lessons to be learned, perhaps, from mistakes made.

Now, in the specific case of GCP21 I combed through the website and didn’t actually find anything worth putting on life support, but it doesn’t look as if that was ever any part of a strategic decision, and it could have been. The Generation Challenge Programme, a similar beast, thoughtfully preserved most of its achievements in a website that, as far as I can tell, still works very well.

Every time-based project should plan for its end; kill it, or preserve it, but please don’t just let it rot away.

  1. Which, last time I looked, was less than one-fifth finished. []

Not that kind of flesh

Oh, Twitter, you’re such a tease.

Knowing that I am currently working on orange-fleshed sweetpotatoes, Luigi kindly sent me a link to a tweet. This one:

Tweet about orange-fleshed sweetpotato

That red ellipse? I’m drawing your attention to Twitter’s warning that seeing the images might bring on an attack of the vapours in highly-attuned personalities.

Is it just the word “fleshed”? I had to know.

Tweet about orange-fleshed sweetpotato with images

I dunno. “Filth,” they say, “is in the mind of the beholder” and I have to say, I’m not seeing it.

Orange-flesh, though. Where else have I seen that? Maybe that’s what Twitter is trying to warn me against.

No matter. Congratulations to @CIPotato and @RTB_CGIAR.

Coffee to fight hidden hunger

Micronutrient deficiencies continue to take a toll on global health. Deficiencies of the minerals calcium, iron and zinc impact vital bodily functions including bone strength, oxygen transport and the immune system. At the same time coffee, which is not known for its content of important micronutrients, is “the most consumed food product worldwide”. How can it have taken so long to create fortified coffee?

Scientists in Brazil (where they have an awful lot of coffee) recently announced the results of fortifying ground, roasted coffee with calcium, iron and zinc. Ten trained coffee tasters evaluated a series of mineral salts and chose the two best-tasting salts for each mineral. Despite a slight metallic aftertaste for even the best salts, and a greenish colour for the iron-fortified coffee, the tasters found the fortified coffee acceptable.

Inductively Coupled Plasma Optical Emission Spectrometry revealed that each fortified brew, based on both Coffea arabica and C. canephora, contained greater amounts of the minerals than unfortified brews. Espresso consistently contained higher concentrations than drip coffee made with either a paper filter or a nylon filter.

The average Brazilian woman would obtain 7.4% of the USDA recommended daily intake of iron from fortified coffee. Men would get 16.7% of the RDI for iron. Equivalent figures for zinc are 4.6% of the RDI for women and 3.3% for men. Calcium is harder to assess, because “acute consumption of caffeine can increase the urinary excretion of this mineral and reduce bone formation”.

Having established that they can fortify coffee with important micronutrient minerals, the researchers now plan to investigate the use of nanoparticles, rather than soluble salts, and to examine “consumer acceptance, stability during storage, and microbiological safety”.

Not so plain vanilla

Speaking of vanilla, as I was elsewhere … A very odd story caught my eye.

Bronze Age people in Israel were the first known vanilla users

Obvious clickbait, right. I mean, vanilla came originally from Mexico, as any fule kno. The photo, of highly ordinary vanilla pods in a very modern plastic basket confirmed my suspicions. The caption:

Although long considered a product that originated in ancient Mexico, vanilla — which is extracted from beans such as these — was used by Middle Easterners around 3,600 years ago, a new study finds.

Well dodgy, but not exactly wrong. Not exactly.

My first thought was that maybe the archaeologists had fooled themselves. After all, pure vanillin is a byproduct of the degeneration of lignin. Maybe a bit of decomposing wood contaminated the juglets in which the stuff was found. But no. The truth is even more interesting, and hidden deep in Science News’ account.

For a start, the juglets also contained traces of olive oil. And while plain vanilla usually signifies the species Vanilla planifolia, there are, in fact more than 100 different species around the world. Vanessa Linares, the archaeologist who identified the compounds, refers to “the vanilla orchid” in an abstract of her research. In fact, she compared the compounds she found with those produced by other species of Vanilla, and suggests that it could have come from one of three different species.

After a close study of vanilla orchid plants, three different species were identified as possible sources for vanilla exploitation in antiquity: V. polylepsis [sic] Summerh (central east Africa), V. albidia Blume (India), and V. abundiflora J.J. Sm. (southeast Asia).

I think, under the circumstances, I might have written “a vanilla orchid”.

Anyway, parsimony suggests (to me) it was V. polylepis from east Africa which, although apparently showy and widespread, was not described formally until 1951. If it did travel from east Africa to the Levant, that is impressive enough. Even more so is that the people who traded it 4000 years ago knew how to undertake the painstaking fermentation that is the secret to the odour and flavour of natural vanilla. The pods barely smell, and certainly not of vanilla.

So yes, not quite what Science News was trying to sell, but pretty interesting all the same. And a project for some enterprising breeder in east Africa: Domesticate your local vanilla.