Fruit of members of the genus Capsicum play a major nutritional role in many cultures by serving as a source of vitamin C (Eshbaugh, 1976) and other phytonutrients (DeWitt and Bosland, 1996). The pungency associated with many forms of Capsicum makes the fresh or dried fruit a desirable spice, and many medicinal properties have been attributed to capsaicin and its analogs (Stewart et al., 2005). Although most consumers in the United States are familiar with the common sweet Bell pepper (C. annuum), the pungent jalapeno (C. annuum), and Tabasco (McIlhenny Co., Avery Island, LA) sauce (C. frutescens), the genus Capsicum actually contains five cultivated species, each with a variety of forms, few of which are seen frequently in the U.S. marketplace. The genus also contains numerous wild species (Hunziker, 2001), several of which have only recently been described (Barboza and Bianchetti, 2005).
The cultivated species of Capsicum include C. annuum, C. baccatum, C. frutescens, C. pubescens, and C. chinense (Heiser and Pickersgill, 1969; Smith and Heiser, 1957). Of these, Capsicum chinense, often referred to as habanero, was the last to be recognized as a cultivated taxa in the modern scientific literature. Described as early as 1768 as C. angulosum (DeWitt and Bosland, 1996), Smith and Heiser (1957) were the first to recognize its (C. sinensis Jacq.) cultivated status. The presence of a calyx constriction is regarded as the species' defining characteristic and the one used to differentiate it from C. frutescens, its nearest relative (Eshbaugh, 1976). Capsicum chinense can be separated from C. annuum on the basis of the number of pedicels/node: one in C. annuum and three to five in C. chinense. Capsicum chinense is typically described as having rugose leaves, a dull white or waxy green corolla, and wavy seed margins (Smith and Heiser, 1957).
The full potential of C. chinense as a food crop in the United States has not been realized. Eshbaugh (1976) observed that C. chinense rivaled C. annuum as a crop in parts of South America and the Caribbean. DeWitt and Bosland (1996) referred to C. chinense as the most important cultivated pepper in South America east of the Andes. DeWitt and Bosland (1996) also noted the importance of C. chinense in the Caribbean where fruit of the species was generally referred to as habanero, Scotch Bonnet, or goat pepper. Numerous landraces with specifically adapted fruit types were widely cultivated. In the eastern Caribbean, these landraces were referred to as Congo peppers (Trinidad) or boney peppers (Trinidad). In the western Caribbean, they were referred to as Scotch bonnets (Jamaica), rocotillos (Puerto Rico), and cachucha (Cuba). Fruit of all forms of C. chinense are generally assumed to be quite pungent. However, pungency within this species, like within other species of Capsicum, varies widely (D'Arcy and Eshbaugh, 1974; DeWitt and Bosland, 1996; Tewksbury et al., 2006). Recent molecular studies have used C. chinense to elucidate the biochemistry and the biology of capsaicin synthesis (Stewart et al., 2005).
Capsicum chinense appears to have its origins in the western Amazon River basin (McLeod et al., 1983) and domesticated forms appear in early agricultural sites in coastal Peru (Davenport, 1970). The oldest known C. chinense is a 6500-year-old intact pod found in Guitarrero Cave in Peru (DeWitt and Bosland, 1996). According to McLeod et al. (1983), the range of C. chinense extends throughout central South America, the Caribbean, and into Central America. Heiser (1976) noted the prevalence of C. chinense in moister habitats in the lowland tropical areas in Brazil. The species is also cultivated from Mexico and the Caribbean south to and including Peru and Bolivia (D'Arcy and Eshbaugh, 1974; Pickersgill, 1971), in Jamaica (Bosland et al., 1996), and in the West Indes (Pickersgill et al., 1979).
The unique botanical characteristics of C. chinense and the basis for its taxonomic classification are well documented (Smith and Heiser, 1957). However, other than the photographs of C. chinense fruit provided by DeWitt and Bosland (1996), the literature contains little if any information on the range of fruit morphological characteristics present in this species. Pickersgill et al. (1979) used numerous morphologically distinct forms of C. chinense in a study to examine phylogenetic relationships within and among the cultivated taxa. However, descriptions of individual morphotypes, seed sources, or photographs were not provided. The current study was undertaken to examine and document the morphological variation present in fruit of accessions of C. chinense in the USDA/ARS Capsicum germplasm collection (Jarret et al., 1990).
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