The peppers are orange, pointed like midget carrots and barely more than 1 inch long. When bitten, they burn the tongue.
The seeds of these peppers were brought to California by a Marine who found them growing on Pavuvu, a small island in the South Pacific, during World War II. Through the courtesy of 17th-century Spanish sea merchants, this pepper had wandered from its tropical American habitat to a tropical Asian atoll. Thanks to the war with Japan and its appeal as a GI souvenir, it was returned to its hemisphere of origin. All peppers grown in Los Angeles gardens – whether jalapeno, Hungarian wax, cayenne or bell – are native to the Caribbean, Central America or equatorial South America.
This story of the Pavuvu pepper is not unusual in horticultural lore. Like so many plants of popular consumption, it has traveled from one end of the Earth to the other and back again, across oceans, continents and diverse cultures. It was the Peruvian potato, after all, that wound up in Ireland and Idaho and ultimately as a French fry at McDonald’s. It was the Ethiopian coffee bean, now picked by Juan Valdez, that became a major export of Colombia and Brazil. And it was the Indochinese orange – whose juice we drink for breakfast – which, after many fantastic journeys, found perfect conditions for growth in Florida and California.
The strawberry – the most recent item to make the list of feared, if not forbidden, fruits – has an intriguing trans-Atlantic history of its own. The familiar cultivated strawberry is actually an accidental hybrid of two species: Fragaria virginiana, from the eastern seaboard states, and Fragaria chiloensis, a native of Chile. Three hundred years ago, explorers of the New World brought these two species back to European gardens. There, chance cross-pollinations produced large-fruited, vigorous plants that were the ancestors of the strawberries we eat today.
Getting back to the pepper (Capsicum annuum), it is significant that botanical books list it as a perennial, even though most gardeners let it grow for no more than one season or two.
My Pavuvu specimen is living proof of the pepper’s perennial potential. It must be said that virtually half of this plant is in the shade of a large shrub and that the portion that still fruits receives only morning sun. Somehow, it has found the perfect niche to express its perennial proclivities.
Unable to resist a peek at how the pepper’s relatives, the tomato and eggplant, are botanically described, I looked them up in “Hortus Third,” a 1,300-page tome, which is the ultimate authority on cultivated plants. Lo and behold! It turns out the tomato and eggplant are also listed as “perennials usually grown as annuals.” The conclusion? There are tropical, perennial cultivars of all three crops that we could grow in more northern climates, if we could somehow protect them from the colder winter temperatures here that shorten their lives. Also, it may soon be possible, through minor genetic adjustment, to create peppers, tomatoes and eggplants that produce crops for many years even in cold areas, since these plants at their essence are, in fact, perennials.
By the way, another relative of the pepper, the petunia, is described in “The Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture,” as “property perennial, but treated as an annual in cultivation.”
I have every intention of making my way to the tropical Andes of South America. It would appear that there is a magic mountainous land, somewhere around 17 degrees south of the equator – where Peru, Bolivia and Chile meet – where perennial peppers, tomatoes, eggplants and petunias are growing in wild abundance. I would like to see these plants up close, examine the soil they are growing in and evaluate the amount and kind of light that reaches them daily. Perhaps the people living in the area could give me some unique insight into growing the petunia, a plant which, in our climate, seems to flower all too briefly, even when it isn’t killed prematurely by root fungus. Then again, the locals would probably just shrug their shoulders and hint that “it’s really no big deal; you just put a seed in the ground and it grows.”
Tip of the Week: Peppers planted now should still be producing when winter comes. Don’t be hasty in removing plants, even if leaves lose their color. Depending on the cultivar, successive crops – albeit in slow succession – may keep coming on for the better part of a year of more.