Chilipiquin, Another Red Christmas Berry
by Ro Wauer
There are several shrubs and vines that produce bright red berries and get considerable attention at Christmastime. Some of the best examples include yaupon, wolfberry, pyracantha, beauty-berry, and Texas nightshade. But one of the most abundant of the red berry producing plants - the chilipiquin - gets very little attention as a symbol of the season. For some reason this widely known red berry festooned plant seems to be ignored.
The chilipiquin, however, has received considerable attention outside the Christmas season for many years and for a number of good reasons. Our little chilipiquin is a low-growing shrub, although when growing next to a taller shrub can become quite large. It can produce white flowers throughout the year, but produces the many-seeded, orange to bright red fruits primarily in fall or winter. It has a number of common names, including chile pequin, chiltipiquin, bush pepper, and bird pepper, and its scientific name is Capsicum annuum. It is a member of the Solanaceae or Tobacco Family, of which there are almost 3000 worldwide. And there are 10 species in the Americas.
Species of Capsicum were in cultivation in Mexico when the first Europeans arrived there in the 1500s. Seeds of Capsicum have been discovered in archeological sites dated 9000 years old, and Capsicum plants may have been in cultivation since 5000 B.C. The seeds undoubtedly were used as a spice, although they also are an excellent source of vitamins C, B and A.
Cilipiquins, the wild progenitor of the jalapeno pepper, packs a wallop that surpasses all of the cultivated hot peppers. The little yellow to bright green berries, about an inch long and conical or egg-shaped, ripen in fall. They can be used fresh or dried and stored for later use; one or two berries or a half-teaspoon of the powder will certainly spice up your chili, enchiladas or tamales. Or one can make a pepper sauce for use in cooking various dishes. Delena Tull includes a pepper sauce receipt in her fascinating book, “Edible and Useful Plants of Texas and the Southwest” (Univ. Texas Press, 1987) as follows: “Sterilize chile pequin fruit by placing the peppers in water, then boil the water, and simmer for 15 minutes. Pour off the water (use it to spice up a pot of beans). Then place a few chiles in a jar with a shaker-type lid, and fill the jar with vinegar. The flavor of the peppers will spice up the vinegar in a few hours” You can then shake some of the spicy vinegar on your various foods as needed.
Chilipiquin peppers have also been used medicinally. Tull mentions that the dry peppers are a stimulant when rubbed on the skin. “The Spanish recorded instances of South American Indians using the smoke of burning peppers as a gas to fight off the Spanish. In the United States the oleoresin [oil & resins] of the peppers was used as a teargas carried by postal workers.” The cosmetic industry uses the peppers as a red coloring. And “the common name ‘bird pepper’ is derived from the practice of feeding cayenne to canaries to produce bright red feathers.” The famous New Mexican chile peppers, also capsicum, are advertized as a health food to cure rheumatism and a remedy for heart trouble, asthma, constipation, and as an aid for virility.
Besides all of the above, chilipiquin shrubs are an attractive plant especially at Christmastime when their bright red berries contrast with their deep green leaves. They are just one more of our wild South Texas plants that are worthy of ornamental use as a symbol of the season.