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Q. Who is Mr. Smarty Plants?

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Tuesday - February 17, 2015

From: Lockhart, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: Problem Plants, Herbs/Forbs
Title:
Answered by: Guy Thompson

QUESTION:

This question may have more to do with chemistry than botany but I thought I would start here. My sister recently discovered that behind her Chili pequin plants, the brick was being dissolved leaving the mortar intact. Very bizarre, I know but this seems to be the only place it is happening, the rest of the bricks are fine. Ever heard of this happening?

ANSWER:

Mr. Smarty Plants must confess to being at a loss to explain this observation, although I am a chemist.  But I am confident that nothing from the Capsicum annuum var. glabriusculum (Chile pequin) plant could dissolve bricks.  However, not to be totally dismayed, I will propose a possible explanation.

The unusual property of Chile pequin is the presence of capsaisin, the compound that gives it its fiery flavor. Most birds lack the taste buds that are sensitive to capsaisin, so they can eat the peppers with impunity. Mammals, on the other hand, avoid the burning sensation of the peppers although they may yearn for the other nutrients in the fruit.  Some animals, such as the South American tapir, regularly visit clay licks, apparently eating the clay to detoxify harmful compounds they have consumed.  Macaws and related parrots visit clay licks for the same purpose.  I haven't found any evidence that capsaisin is one of the compounds that they detoxify in this way.  But it set me to thinking.  Suppose some wild animal, for example, a wild mouse, rat, or squirrel, was drawn to consume your sister's peppers and relieved the burning sensation by gnawing on a nearby brick.  Plausable idea, yes?  Or perhaps no.

I suggest that you investigate this situation in further detail.  Could the bricks be gnawed at, showing teeth marks, instead of being dissolved?  Are some of the peppers missing?  This could be a phenomenon new to science.  I hope you will continue looking into it.  I have a feeling that the Chile pequin is only involved indirectly.

 

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