Identifying Chilli Species


The botantical 'genus' to which all chillies belong is Capsicum (CAP-see-coom), from the greek kapsimo ”καψιμο” meaning 'to burn. The genus Capsicum is also a member of the wider Solanaceae or nightshade family (flowering plants that include a number of important agricultural crops as well as many toxic plants), therefore Chilli peppers are closely related to their genetic cousins, the tomato, potato, tobacco and also the eggplant.
Chilli peppers grow as a perennial shrub in suitable climatic conditions. A plant may live for a decade or more in tropical conditions such as those similar to the climate of central South America, but it is mostly cultivated as an annual elsewhere.
English doctor turned botanist Robert Morrison described 33 species of Chile peppers in his study, 'Plantarum Historiae Universalis Oxonniensis', which was published in 1680, since then there has been much argument and debate amongst botanists and taxonomists as to the number and classification of Capsicum species.
After much argument and amendment, it is now widely accepted that the genus Capsicum consists of twenty-five wild species and five domesticated species which have been transformed into the immense diversity of chilli peppers grown around the world today.


Species list

Capsicum annuum L. Capsicum cornutum (Hiern) Hunz. Capsicum hookerianum (Miers) Kuntze. Capsicum pubescens Ruiz & Pav.
Capsicum baccatum L. Capsicum dimorphum (Miers) Kuntze. Capsicum lanceolatum (Greenm.) C.V.
Morton & Standl.
Capsicum rhomboideum (Dunal) Kuntze.
Capsicum buforum Hunz. Capsicum dusenii Bitter. Capsicum leptopodum (Dunal) Kuntze. Capsicum schottianum Sendtn.
Capsicum campylopodium Sendtn. Capsicum eximium Hunz. Capsicum lycianthoides Bitter. Capsicum scolnikianum Hunz.
Capsicum cardenasii Heiser & P. G. Sm. Capsicum flexuosum Sendtn. Capsicum minutiflorum (Rusby) Hunz. Capsicum tovarii Eshbaugh et al.
Capsicum chacoense Hunz. Capsicum frutescens L. Capsicum mirabile Mart. ex Sendtn. Capsicum villosum Sendtn.
Capsicum chinense Jacq. Capsicum galapagoense Hunz. Capsicum mositicum Toledo.  
Capsicum coccineum (Rusby) Hunz. Capsicum geminifolium (Dammer) Hunz. Capsicum parvifolium Sendtn.  

Formerly placed here

  • Tubocapsicum anomalum (Franch. & Sav.) Makino (as C. anomalum Franch. & Sav.)
  • Vassobia fasciculata (Miers) Hunz. (as C. grandiflorum Kuntze)
  • Witheringia stramoniifolia Kunth (as C. stramoniifolium (Kunth) Kuntze)

The five domesticated Species;

The five domesticated species Annuum, Baccatum, Chinense, Frutescens and Pubescens are the most commonly available species to the Chile enthusiast and each species has its own distinguishing characteristics.
However due to the ease at which these domesticated species cross pollinate with each other and the development and hybridisation of new varieties, there is now an almost unending range of varieties available making classification and increasingly difficult task.

Capsicum annuum L

The name Annuum {pronounced 'ANN-you-um'), meaning 'annual' is actually an incorrect designation given that Chillis are perennials under suitable growing conditions. This species is the most common and extensively cultivated of the five domesticated species.
Many of the small and very pungent pequin / bird's eye peppers and piri-piri are C. annuum. The pods which can be a range of colours, these being, white, green, violet or nearly black when unripe ripen to yellow, or orange, or red, or brown, or brownish-black (some even to violet). Some ornamental varieties may have purple leaves, flowers and even fruit. The fruits can be of about any appearance, heat and taste. C. annuum is also the chilli pepper which has spread furthest around the world, wherever chilli peppers are grown, there will also be be found the C. annuum.
Cultivated C. annuum peppers don't generally look very much like their wild cousins. They tend to be rather small, rarely more than about 120cm tall. They also usually have larger leaves and especially flowers, which can be 2 – 2.5 cm in diameter or more.


The flowers of the C. annuum are solitary at each node (occasionally fasciculate). Pedicels usually declining at anthesis. Corolla milky white (occasionally purple), without diffuse spots at base of lobes; corolla lobes usually straight. Calyx of mature fruit without annular constriction at junction with pedicel (though sometimes irregularly wrinkled); veins often prolonged into short teeth. Fruit flesh usually firm (soft in certain cultivars). Seeds straw-coloured. Chromosome number 2n=24, with two pairs of acrocentric chromosomes.

Flower: erect, stellate, often large Corona: white (rarely violet) Spots: no
Calyx: toothless Berry: of any shape and size Heat: from mild to very hot (0-9)
Sweetness: from missing to very sweet Seed: yellow-brown Plant height: 50 - 120cm
Leaves: smooth, very rarely hairy Habit: sturdy, tree-like bush Chromosomes: 24 verified

Capsicum baccatum L

Baccatum (pronounced as 'bah-KAY-tum'), meaning 'berry-like' consists of the South American cultivars known as Aji's. There are almost as many baccatum cultivars as annuums with pods ranging from non- pungent to very hot.
Their flowers make this species easily recognizable: uniquely among the cultivated species, they have a greenish or straw-colored spots on the corollas (on the flowers) and by the yellow anthers at the base of their leaves.
The pods are of medium to high pungency, with a note of berries. Many of the baccatum species are tall growing, often reaching 2 meters in height and pods are usually erect and become pendant as they mature.
The wild gene pool, tightly linked to the domesticate, is designated Capsicum baccatum var. baccatum and is most common in Bolivia, Brazil, Chile and Argentina.


The flowers of the C. baccatum are solitary at each node. Pedicels erect or declining at anthesis. Corolla white or greenish-white, with diffuse yellow spots at base of corolla lobes on either side of mid-vein [flower is white with yellowish spots, anthers are white but turn brownish-yellow with age]; corolla lobes usually slightly revolute. Calyx of mature fruit without annular constriction at junction with pedicel (though sometimes irregularly wrinkled), veins prolonged into prominent teeth. Fruit flesh firm. Seeds straw- coloured. Chromosome number 2n=24, with one pair of acrocentric chromosomes.

Flower: erect, rotate, small Corona: white Spots: green (yellow-brown)
Calyx: no or small 5 teeth Berry: red, round or oblong Heat: medium hot
Sweetness: no Seed: yellow-brown Plant height: 100 - 200cm
Leaves: smooth, relatively small Habit: bush Chromosomes: 24 verified

Capsicum chinense Jacq..

Named as in a plant "from China" (pronounced as 'chi-NEN-see'). This is incorrect though; like all Capsicum species, it originated in the New World, however, the Dutch physician, Nikolaus von Jacquin, who named this species in 1776, got his seed from the Caribbean while collecting on behalf of Emperor Francis I, and thought that they had originated from China.
C. chinense are now common throughout the Caribbean, Central and South America and in the tropics. This species includes many of the world's hottest cultivars including the Bhut Jolokia, Trinidad Scorpion and the 7pot/pod varieties. The pod
shape can vary from long and slender to short and obtuse. The plants are also very varied in this species although they are characterised by a distinctive fruity aroma although some also have a floral like aroma. These are by far the hottest peppers in the world, although there are some exceptions to the rule. The C. chinense being a tropical species tend to do best in areas of high humidity. They are relatively slower growers, having longer growing seasons than many of the other species and seeds can take a long time to germinate.
The flowers are quite similar to those of C. frutescens L., but usually there are a few flowers per node. The flower of C.chinense is very characteristic with is yellow/greenish tint, small, pendant, somewhat bell- shaped form and purple anthers.


The flowers of the C. chinense have 2 or more at each node (occasionally solitary). Pedicels erect or declining at anthesis. Corolla greenish-white (occasionally milky white or purple), without diffuse spots at base of lobes; corolla lobes usually straight. Calyx of mature fruit usually with annular constriction at junction with pedicel, veins not prolonged into teeth. Fruit flesh firm. Seeds straw-coloured. Chromosome number 2n=24, with one pair of acrocentric chromosomes. The plant has multiple stems and an erect habit. The leaves are pale to medium green, usually ovate in shape and are often large, reaching up to 6 inches long and 4 inches wide. They are usually crinkled, which is a distinguishing trait of Capsicum chinense.
The pods vary enormously in size and shape, ranging from chiltepin-sized berries one-quarter inch in diameter, to wrinkled and elongated pods up to five inches long.

Flower: stellate, small, bell-shaped Corona: Yellowish-white Spots: No
Calyx: Almost toothless Berry: roundish, often wrinkled Heat: from mild to extreme (0-10+)
Sweetness: mostly present Seed: yellow-brown Plant height: 40 - 200cm
Leaves: large, uneven Habit: small, usually low tree Chromosomes: 24 verified

Capsicum frutescens L

Frutescens (pronounced as 'fru-TES-enz') meaning 'shrubby' or 'bushy' show little variation among different types producing lots of pods, showing them above their foliage; It is typical, however, that the flowers have more of a greenish tint (though that sometimes seems to get lost), and a pedicel which is cylindrical, staying the same width and constricting the base of the fruit.but it is typical that the stem grows straight up, with a sudden curve just before the flower head. The pods, again, grow more towards the vertical..
Frutescens plants have a compact habit, have many stems and grow between 1 and 4 feet high depending upon local conditions. The flowers have greenish white corollas with no spots and purple anthers. Pod types are less varied than the other species (with the exception of Pubescens) are often small, pointy and grow erect on the plants. This species is particularly good for container gardening and a single plant can produce 100 or more pods.
Frutescens peppers are rather easy to distinguish. The plants are usually tall, tree-like and sturdy, with very flexible branches. The leaves are of medium size and tend to be dark and glossy. The Frutescens flower is almost always small, clearly greenish, and has purple anthers. The fruit is almost always a candle-like, 1.5 - 2cm tall berry with no sweetness and quite high heat.
It has been suggested that Capsicum frutescens, in its primitive form, may be the ancestor of Capsicum chinense.


The flowers of the C. frutescens are solitary at each node (occasionally fasciculate). Pedicels erect at anthesis but flowers nodding. Corolla greenish-white, without diffuse spots at base of lobes, corolla lobes often slightly revolute. Calyx of mature fruit without annular constriction at junction with pedicel, though often irregularly wrinkled; veins usually not prolonged into teeth. Fruit flesh often soft. Seeds straw- coloured. Chromosome number 2n=24, with one pair of acrocentric chromosomes, e.g. Tabasco pepper.

Flower: Erect, small, sharp curve Corona: Greenish Spots: No
Calyx: Toothless Berry: Erect, candle-like, 2-3cm Heat: medium to hot (4-8)
Sweetness: No Seed: yellow-brown Plant height: 100 - 200cm
Leaves: smooth, shiny Habit: tree-like, sturdy Chromosomes: 24 verified

Capsicum pubescens Ruiz & Pav.

Pubescens (Pronounced as 'pugh-BES-enz) meaning 'hairy' is probably the least common on the five domesticated species First commented upon in 1794 by Ruiz and Pavon and thought to have been first used domestically some 6,000 years ago. Morphologically, these are unlike any other domesticated pepper having brown/black seeds. Genetically, this species has no wild form. However it is very closely related to a group of wild species including Capsicum eximium (Bolivia and northern Argentina), Capsicum cardenasii (Bolivia) and Capsicum tovarii (Peru). This may be due to the fact that this species cannot cross-pollinate with other Capsicum species, thus reducing its genetic diversity over time. Pubescens has a compact to erect habit (sometimes sprawling and vine like) and can grow up to 8 feet tall, although 2 feet is more usual. The flowers have purple corollas, purple and white anthers and stand erect from the leaves. The pods are normally pear or apple shaped. The fruit’s flesh is thick and juicy, and therefore especially some yellow forms taste hotter than they actually are. The mixture of different capsaicines in C. pubescens is somewhat different from the other domesticated peppers, and therefore, a particularly hot example may surprise even the most experienced chileheads... These peppers are truly delicious - but they can also be very, very hot! Pubescens grows on high altitudes, typically at 2000...4000m.


Flowers solitary at each node. Pedicels erect at anthesis but flowers nodding. Corolla is purple (occasionally with white margins to lobes and/or white tube), without diffuse spots at base of lobes (though a drop of yellow nectar may accumulate in this position and simulate a corolla spot) [flower is purple with a tiny white border]; corolla lobes usually straight. Calyx of mature fruit without annular constriction at junction with pedicel, veins prolonged into teeth. Fruit flesh firm. Seeds dark in colour. Chromosome number 2n=24, with one pair of acrocentric chromosomes.

Corona: purple Flower: rotate, flat or bell-shaped Spots: no
Berry: large, oval, red, orange or Calyx: long teeth (5)yellow Heat: from mild to extreme (3-9)
Sweetness: none to quite evident Seed: black Plant height: 100 - 300cm
Leaves: mostly pubescent, rather dark Habit: bushy or very tall,green sprawling Chromosomes: 24 verified

How to Use the Chilli Species Identification Key?

First choose from the Main sections: A or AA or AAA.
Each section has different subsections to choose from: B or BB.
Under subsection B or BB you can choose another (sub) subsection C or CC.
Under (sub) subsection C or CC you can choose again D or DD.

Trinidad Scorpion: >>> A >>B > CC = C. Chinense
C. Torvarii: >>>AAA >> B B> C = C. Torvarii

Key to Pepper Species

This key was created and donated by Dr. Paul Smith, Professor Emeritus, Department of Vegetable Crops,U.C. Davis. Glossary by Allen Boatman

A. Corolla solid color, white to waxy yellow green, without spots or other contrasting colors
B. Anthers pale blue to purple *
C. Flowers solitary (sometimes 2 at first flowering node), white **,calyx distinctly ridged, small teeth (less than 1 mm) at margin
C. annuum

CC. Flowers commonly 2-5 per node, corolla white to pale waxy green
D. Distinct annular constriction at the base of calyx, teethminute, corolla white, pedicels variously curved.
C. chinense

DD. Calyx not constricted, teeth lacking, pedicels slender, stiffly erect at bud stage, corolla pale waxy green.
C. frutescens

BB. Anthers without anthocyanin, corolla white
C. Plants glabrous or nearly so, calyx tube heavily ridged, teeth as long as calyx tube filament bases with distinct appendages or “wings”
C. chacoense

CC. Plants pubescent, calyx without teeth, filament bases without appendages
C. galapagoense

AA. Corolla base with distinct single spot or continuous basal zone, anthers yellow (except C. pubescens).
B. Basal zone continuous
C. Corolla purple with white basal zone, plant pubescent, leavesrugose, seeds black.
C. pubescens

CC. Corolla yellow, basal zone chocolate, plant glabrous, leaves smooth, up to 15 flowers per node, seeds tan
Ac. 393 (S.E. Peru)

BB. Basal spots distinct, pale green or yellow
C. Corolla white to pale lavender to purple, spots pale green, seeds tan
D. Corolla lavender to purple,*** calyx teeth 1.2-1.8 mm.
C. eximium

DD. Corolla dirty white, plant pubescent
C. eximium var. tomentosum

CC. Corolla white or with purplish tint, spots pale green. Seeds black
D. Corolla white, calyx teeth indistinct
C. schiottianum

DD. Corolla white or with lavender tint, free portion of petals distinctly in-rolled, seeds black
C. buforum

AAA. Corolla lobes with 2 distinct spots at the base, seeds tan to brown
B. Corolla rotate
C. Petal segments distinct
D. Corolla white, spots pale green
C. baccatum var. baccatum
DD. Corolla white, spots yellow
C. baccatum var. pendulum
DDD. Outer margin to ½ of corolla lavender, leaves lightly rugose, moderately pubescent
C. praetermissum
CC. Petal segments indistinct, margin ruffled, points at petal intersection
Ac. 1230 (Brazil)

BB. Corolla urn shaped, cream to violet
C. Corolla urn shaped, cream to violet
C. tovarii

CC. Corolla campanulate, lavender
C. cardenasii

* A C. annuum with yellow anthers has been seen.
** C. annuum forms with anthocyanin in the leaves and stems also have lavender to purple flowers.
*** Flower color in wild C. eximium may range from typical lavender through various intergrades to purple. This is clearly the influence of natural hybridization with C. pubescens.

Glossary of terms used in the Key above.

Annular – in the form of a ring.
Anther – the part of a stamen that contains pollen.
Anthesis – the flowering period when the flower is fully expanded and functioning.
Anthocyanin – the dissolved coloring matter (glycoside pigments) in blue flowers.
Calyx – collective term for all the sepals of a flower.
Calyx Tube – a tube formed by the untied bases of the sepals and partly by the receptacle.
Campanulate – Bell-shaped.
Constricted – Drawn together or narrowed.
Continuous – In botany, not deviating from uniformity; the reverse of interrupted.
Corolla – the collective name for all the petals of a flower.
Declined – curved downward.
Diffuse – widely or loosely spreading.
Erect – upright, upward, vertical, not declining or spreading.
Filament – the part of the stamen that supports the anther.
Glabrous – smooth. Having a surface without hair or down.
Inflorescence – the flowering part of a plant; the arrangement of flowers on a plant.
Margin – the edge of something. (i.e. Leaf margin = the edge of the leaf.)
Node – the place on a limb/stem where a leaf is, or was, attached. A bud exists at the leaf base or leaf scar, at a node. This bud is capable of becoming a root, shoot, or fruit (flower).
Pedicel – the stalk of a single flower in an inflorescence, or of a grass spikelet.
Peduncle – the stalk supporting a solitary flower or flower cluster.
Pubescence (pubescent) In botany: 1. a covering of hair, as on the surface of a leaf. 2. The state of having a covering of hair.
Revolute – With the margins, or edges, rolled back toward the underside.
Rotate  Describes a corolla that is wheel-shaped flat and circular in outline.
Rugose – crinkling, blistering, or blister like irregularities formed on the surface of a leaf. A rough leaf surface.
Sepal – one segment of the leaf like structure that protects the petals of a flower until it opens.
Solitary – occurring singly and not born in a cluster or group.
Urn Shaped – shaped like the container, usually like a vase with a pedestal, used for growing flowers


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