Capsicum (red pepper)

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Painting by Esther Carpi

Artist’s Statement:

Cayenne is a perennial plant in its native tropical America but it is an annual outside tropical zones and I grow it in my garden in Alexandria, Virginia. During my research for plants that Lucy might have used I was intrigued by the medicinal uses of plants that I had merely enjoyed for their color, texture and scent in my garden. I have often used dried Cayenne peppers as decoration on our Christmas wreath but until working on this project, I never paid much attention to its earlier growth patterns. I was surprised to discover that it buds continually through out the summer and early fall and that the plant can have all stages, from bud to dried pod, simultaneously. I painted the bud, the new tender green pepper, the fully ripe red pepper and the shriveled red pepper as they all appeared at the same time on my plant last September.

Medicinal uses:

Nicholas Culpeper, the 17th century English botanist, physician, and astrologer whose herbal texts greatly influenced medicine in the American Colonies, described the medicinal virtues of Capsicum thus: “They are so hot they will raise a blister in the mouth and throat if the seeds or husks be used alone. The vapour from them causes sneezing, coughing and even vomiting. If the hands touch the nose or eyes after handling them, inflammation will follow. A powder is made by grinding he husks, a cake is made with the powder and then the cakes are beaten to a powder and sifted. This powder is then used to season meat, soups and stews. It drives away wind and helps flatulency. It takes away the dimness of the sight if used in meats. A decoction of the husks makes a good gargle for toothache and preserves the teeth.” (Culpeper, p.143)

Thomas Jefferson grew it at Monticello and declared he “set a great store” by it. He used it to treat the rheumatism that periodically plagued him throughout his life. He received its seeds from a doctor named Samuel Brown who recommended it as “preservative of health in a hot climate” and suggested substituting red pepper for a portion of “the ration of spirits which are allowed for our troops.” (Letter from Samuel Brown to Jefferson, May 25, 1813.)

An 18th century Lewis family ledger filled with handwritten recipes contains the following unpunctuated “receipt” for “Putrid soar throat”: “mix one gill of cider vinegar a teasppon full of common gall a tablespoon ful of honey and half pod of red pepper together boil to a propper consistency pour into a half pint strong sage tea take a tablespoon full occasionally it will be found an exellent remidy”

Lydia Child’s 1837 handbook on home health care lists a number of other uses. She describes Cayenne as "a powerful rubefacient, that promptly stimulates the skin without blistering. Sprinkled on flannel wet with heated spirit, it is applied for violent pain in the bowels, and as a wash for rheumatism. When people apply such hot external remedies for the rheumatism, it is well to take something two or three times a day, to prevent its striking to the heart or stomach; guaiacum, an infusion of Cayenne, or prickly-ash, are suitable. Internally, Cayenne is a very strong stimulant, producing a general glow. It is applicable to palsy and lethargic affections, and useful to correct flatulence in languid stomachs. In powder, the dose is from five to ten grains; most convenient made into a pill. To make the infusion, pour half a pint of boiling water upon two drachms [drams] of the powder, steep it an hour, and strain it; three or four tea-spoons taken at once. Cayenne may be made of the common red pepper, dryed and powdered; but the process is troublesome to the eyes." (Childs, p. 91)

Capsicum is the active phenolic substance found in plants from the genus Capsicum (including red pepper). It possesses well-documented anti-inflammatory and analgesic activities and is commonly used in topical preparations used to relieve pain. (NSD) Contemporary herbalist John Lust describes Cayenne as a digestive, irritant, sialagogue, stimulant, and tonic. Lust cautions that prolonged application to the skin can cause dermatitis or raise blisters, while excessive consumption can cause gastroenteritis and kidney damage. (Lust, pp.151-152)