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A: There are those who suspect Wildflower Center volunteers are the culpable and capable culprits. Yet, others think staff members play some, albeit small, role. You can torture us with your plant questions, but we will never reveal the Green Guru's secret identity.

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Ask Mr. Smarty Plants is a free service provided by the staff and volunteers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

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Thursday - December 07, 2006

From: Harford, MD
Region: Mid-Atlantic
Topic: Medicinal Plants
Title: Medicinal purposes of the common pepper
Answered by: Nan Hampton

QUESTION:

Hello. I am a student at North Harford High School in Harford County, Maryland. I am currently doing a project in environmental science which requires me to do an interview, or at least ask some questions to a plant expert of some sort. If you wouldn't mind taking some time to fill out the following few questions, it would be a lot of help. The plant I have chosen to study is common Pepper, and we are studying plants used for medicinal purposes. QUESTION: How is the plant used?

ANSWER:

The common pepper is a member of the Family Solanaceae (Potato Family). Other members of the family are the tomato, tobacco, and deadly nightshade. The botanical name for the common pepper is Capsicum annuum. There is one variety, Capsicum annuum var. glabriusculum, the chile piquin, native to the United States.

All cultivated peppers are in the variety Capsicum annuum var. annuum and were developed from plants native to Central and South America. This group comes in many forms, including some with fiery fruits (e.g., jalapeño) and some with mild fruits (e.g., bell pepper).

Christopher Columbus, on his first voyage of discovery to the New World, found peppers being used by the indigenous peoples. He returned to Europe with plants and seeds and introduced them into Spain and Portugal. Capsicum spp. can now be found growing and being used worldwide.

What parts of the plant is used?
The fruits are eaten and used for seasoning other foods and, also, for making herbal medicines.

How is the plant used?
It is used as a food and as a seasoning. Traditionally it was, and still is, used as an herbal medicine.

Native Americans of the Southwest used peppers for food and for seasoning. The Cherokee Indians used peppers to treat colds and colic, and, as a poultice to treat fever and gangrene. The Navajo used powered chili pepper on the breast to wean a nursing child.

You can find more about the Native American use of Capsicum in the Native American Ethnobotany database from the University of Michigan–Dearborn.

Capsicum is still used as alternative medicine by herbalists as a painkiller and to treat cold feet, arthritis, obesity and respiratory tract infections. Conventional medicine sources are now looking at capsaicin, the active ingredient in the plant, and its possibilities for pain management as well as for other applications. You can read more from the American Cancer Society.

 

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