February 17, 2003

Not pepper, Chris. It’s a Chile.


Chalk up another misdirected name to America’s supposed discoverer.

Christopher Columbus, in his unproductive search for riches across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492, mistook America for India. He named the natives Indians, and he also took the liberty of placing an improper label on what was to become one of the Southwest’s most popular vegetables.

Believing he had found an exotic form of black pepper, Columbus took plants back with him to Spain and told the Europeans it was “the world’s finest pepper.”

Not pepper, Chris. Chile.

Pepper, most commonly in the form of black and white grindings, is a woody vine native to the East Indies. Chile – green and red, and a different species entirely – has its roots almost 10,000 miles away.

Columbus’ chile excavations probably took place on one of several islands near the North and Central American coasts. However, most historians agree that South America, chiefly Bolivia, is the source of the original chile plant.

Tracing the plant’s exact journey over time to North America is difficult. Ancient tribes of people might have carried the plant onto the continent, or Spaniards, hoping to settle the land along the Gulf Coast, might have planted the continent’s first crops.

By the mid-1500s, thousands of acres of chile plants, by then called peppers, had been planted in Europe.

Seeds from the chile plant began following European travelers to North America, and soon many farmers were learning to grow their own chile crops. Along the way, new crossbred chiles evolved.

The plant became a staple of American Indian crops, and in 1696 it practically saved dozens of tribes in New Mexico, according to “The History of New Mexico” by Charles Coan.

The famine of 1696 destroyed crops, killed livestock and threatened human lives, but the chile plant thrived and helped feed people who otherwise might have starved.

In the late 19th century, chile was growing both wild and tame along the Rio Grande in West Texas and southern New Mexico.

A major early technology boost to the crop came in 1888 when a horticulturist from the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts – now New Mexico State University – began experimentation into the crossbreeding and hybrid growth of chile, according to the university’s Chile Pepper Institute.

Within a decade, several new artificially created breeds of chile sprouted up across the Southwest.

In 1906, the first known transplantation of New Mexican chile occurred when Emilio Ortega, a sheriff from California, took chile seeds from New Mexico back to Anaheim, Calif., and coined a name for his new pepper. Known as the Anaheim, it is a variety of the plant that still grows in New Mexico today.

Just five years later, an agricultural guru created the strongest breed of New Mexican chile. Calling his product the No. 9, Fabian Garcia’s pepper was the most durable crop in the south until crossbreeding technology strengthened in the late 1960s.

Today, the chile – encompassing more than 65 different varieties and colors – is the state’s most valuable processed crop. More than 1,500 farmers harvest almost 20,000 acres of chile every year in New Mexico, generating $200 million in sales.


Contact Avery Holton at The Tribune in Albuquerque, N.M.

Food & Dyes & Medicine
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