Chili Peppers


Chapter XX of José de Acosta's Historia natural y moral de las Indias describes varieties of chili peppers and their uses in the New World.

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This 16th c. woodcut from Leonhart Fuch's New Kreüterbuch was one of the first images of chili peppers to appear in Europe.

The chili pepper (often called by its Spanish name, aji or axi, in early modern documents) is the piquant fruit obtained from plants in the genus Capsicum. Domesticated in central-east Mexico over 6000 years before the arrival of Europeans in the New World, Capsicum has long been a staple in the diet of Native Americans from Mexico to South America.[1] Europeans first encountered chilies during Columbus’ 1492 voyage to the New World. Remarking that “all the people eat nothing else, it being very wholesome”[2], Columbus recognized that the chili, as a potential rival to black pepper, had great potential for export, and he subsequently introduced them to Europe through Spain.[3]

In the 16th century, a Jesuit Spanish missionary named José de Acosta described the chilies of the New World in his Historia natural y moral de las Indias. Having travelled extensively throughout Peru and Mexico, Acosta gave detailed descriptions of his journey, Incan and Aztec culture, and the geography and natural resources of the New World. Acosta remarked that “the naturall spice that God hath given to the West Indies” was “well knowne”, and he thus kept his description of Capsicum brief. This suggests that the chili pepper, which had entered Europe less than a century previously, was already a familiar fruit to Spaniards by the 16th century. Acosta encountered a variety of Capsicum cultivars, which he divided into two categories: the “extremely sharp and biting sort”, rather like jalapeños or habaneros, and the sweet, “not so biting” sort, perhaps poblanos or a similar variety. Interested particularly in the medicinal properties of chilies, Acosta noted that axi, when eaten in moderation, “helps and comforts the stomacke”, while in larger quantities it had such negative health affects as “[provoking] to lust”. To the early modern eater, Capsicum must have been valuable both as an alternative to expensive black pepper and as a stomach-soothing remedy, while its purported lustful properties seem to suggest that some saw it as an aphrodisiac. Acosta explains that the chili is “the most common spice for sauces” in the New World, perhaps indicating that Acosta encountered sauces reminiscent of the Mexican mole. The omnipresence of chili peppers in New World diets, as described by Acosta (and Columbus before him), demonstrates the chili's remarkable power to transform cuisines, as it soon did throughout the world.

Though Columbus was the first to bring the chili pepper to Europe, it was the Portuguese who began its spread throughout the globe. Exporting Capsicum cultivars from Brazil shortly after the 1494 Treaty of Tordesilhas, the Portuguese soon brought the fruit to the shores of India. As Portuguese traders followed the sea routes established by Vasco da Gama, they spread chilies at African ports in Mozambique. By the middle of the 16th century, the chili pepper had reached Indonesia, Japan, and China. Ironically, though Europeans drove the spread of Capsicum throughout the world, Western Europeans originally regarded the chili pepper as a mere ornament, prized for its color and novelty more than its pungent flavor.[4] Nonetheless, the fruit altered cuisines around the globe within a half century of Columbus’ first voyage.

In 1543, an image of a chili pepper plant appeared in Leonhart Fuchs’ New Kreüterbuch, the German translation of his original Latin De Historia Stirpium Commentarii Insignes. Initially published in modern-day Switzerland, Fuchs’ book exemplified the German revival of the herbal, a genre that sought to accurately portray plants and their medicinal purposes. With detailed descriptions and illustrations of around 500 different plants, De Historia Stirpium amalgamated careful observation with the classical learning of the German Renaissance. [5] While Fuchs supplied the text for the herbal, its woodcut illustrations required the work of four separate artists. Based on careful observation, Albrecht Meyer provided detailed sketches of each plant. Heinrich Füllmaurer subsequently copied these drawings to woodblocks, which Vitus Rudolph Speckle cut and printed. While in some editions these illustrations appeared without color, in this printing of New Kreüterbuch an unidentified artist painted each woodcut in watercolors. [6]

Displaying the entirety of the Capsicum plant (identified in German as Langer Indianischer Pfeffer), the image intimates a scientific interest in portraying the chili accurately. The artists have rendered the plant’s forked roots and small, blossoming flowers with no less detail than its red fruit. This emphasis on the plant as a whole suggests that, to the book’s European audience, interest in the chili pepper was not primarily culinary. Though most of the chili peppers in the woodcut are fully ripe, many are still in the early stages of development. Long red pods grow alongside smaller fruits, some solid green, others with the first flecks of the chili’s characteristic red. This meticulous portrayal of Capsicum annuum, understood here as a plant of medicinal value rather than as a foodstuff, might assist other physicians and botanists in studying the plant, as the viewer may observe several stages of the plant’s development in one image.

Though Fuchs ostensibly created De Historia Stirpium for a scientific audience [7], its translation into the German vernacular, as well as its subsequent translations into Dutch, French, Spanish, and a variety of other languages, suggests that the work appealed to another audience. To Europeans sufficiently wealthy to afford such books, the image of the chili pepper may have held the same ornamental value as the plant itself. The bright red of the chilies contrasts the more subdued green of the plant’s leaves and stalk, emphasizing Capsicum’s exotic beauty and its status as a curiosity to Western Europeans. Through this striking naturalistic representation, the viewer could experience, likely for the first time, the novelty of this New World species. In the chili’s circulation throughout the world, this Western European experience was the exception: what was becoming an indispensible spice in Africa and Asia remained mainly a curiosity to Spaniards and Frenchmen in the 16th century.

It is hardly surprising that the chili pepper spread more rapidly than virtually any other New World foodstuff. Adaptable to a variety of climates, chilies grew as readily in the Indian subcontinent and Africa as they did in Mesoamerica.[8] Perhaps most importantly, the chili pepper, though a genus entirely unknown to the Old World, fit readily into existing cuisines through its pungent similarity to a familiar ingredient. With the introduction of chilies, access to spicy, flavorful food was no longer confined to those who could afford the luxury of black pepper.

-by Jimmy von Albade

[1] Bosland, P.W. “Capsicums: Innovative uses of an ancient crop.” Progress in New Crops. Ed. J. Janick. Arlington: ASHS Press, 1996. 479-487. Web. 8 Oct. 2014. <>.

[2] Olson, Julius E. , and Edward Bourne, eds. The Northmen, Columbus and Cabot, 985-1503: The Voyages of the Northmen and The Voyages of Columbus and of John Cabot. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1906). 227.

[3] Bosland

[4] Wallin, Nils-Bertil. “Chili: Small Fruit Sets Global Palettes on Fire.” YaleGlobal Online. Yale University, 11 June 2004. Web. 8 Nov. 2014.

[5] Classen, Albrecht. "The Great Herbal of Leonhart Fuchs." Rev. of De historia stirpium commentarii insignes, by Leonhart Fuchs. German Studies Review Oct. 2001: 595-597. Print.

[6] Gardham, Julie. "Fuch's Great Herbal." Glasgow University Library Special Collections. Glasgow University, Oct. 2012. Web. 20 Nov. 2014.

[7] "Leonhard Fuchs". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 29 Nov. 2014

[8] Eshbaugh, W.H. “History and Exploitation of a Serendipitous New Crop Discovery.” New Crops. Ed. J. Janick and J.E. Simon. New York: Wiley, 1993. 132-139. Web. 8 Oct. 1014. <>.


Chili Peppers