In a gravity-defying act, these chillies grow pointing upwards. Emerging fruits are pale green, incredibly adorable little nubs. They eventually grow to a glorious height of about 2cm, darken, and turn a shade of dirty paintbrush water before finally deciding to blush a bright, furious red. And despite how cute and pretty they are, they pack a serious punch.
Capsicum frutescens, a member of the Solanaceae family, is related to tomatoes, eggplants, and the like. It’s often confused with a similar relative, Capsicum annuum, although cultivars of the latter species tend to be larger and less spicy. C. frutescens is thought to have originated in Central or South America, although it now enjoys massive popularity on the other side of the world, firmly planting itself in the heart of Asian cuisine, gracing curries, stir fries, soups, sauces, and even salads for the brave.
The active ingredient, so to speak, is capsaicin, named after the plant genus in which it is found. Biochemically, it binds to a receptor known as the vanilloid receptor subtype 1, found on neurons in mammals. Receptors function like locks, and activation by their ligands- the keys- leads to a cascade of downstream biochemical signalling events. Each receptor type gives rise to a specific signalling cascade, which tells the brain that a particular sensation is to be felt. In the case of capsaicin, the receptor is one that signals heat and pain, which explains why chilli gives us a burning sensation. Interestingly, capsaicin can lead to the pain-simulated release of endorphins, a neurotransmitter in the brain that makes one feel happy.
This mechanism of action has been applied successfully in medical treatments. Pain patches and topical analgesic (pain-reducing) creams often contain capsaicin, which first stimulates neurons, leading to depletion of substance P, a neurotransmitter required for sensing pain. This in turn helps reduce pain in the long term. Traditionally, chillies have also been used in folk medicine to treat vomiting and diarrhoea.
Potent as the fruits are, C. frutescens as a plant is surprisingly sensitive and delicate. It requires a lot of sunlight and heat, does not take well to either too much or too little water, and is susceptible to a multitude of diseases, such as aphids, red spider mites, Fusarium wilt, bacterial wilt, and bacterial soft rot, to name a few. Gardeners hoping to reap a full crop need to be attentive enough to assure that the plant is given just the right conditions to grow.
But if you have enough of a green thumb, the plants are very satisfying to grow. Leaves are a verdant green, small, oval, and tapered to a dainty point. Sitting almost horizontally, they give the plant a rather neat, prim appearance. Flowers are small and white, often shyly drooping a little, where they are patronized by bees and such. A gentle shake also helps pollinate the flowers, ensuring that in just a few weeks, you’ve got little chillies quietly reaching for the sky.
- Anand P, Bley K. Topical capsaicin for pain management: therapeutic potential and mechanisms of action of the new high-concentration capsaicin 8% patch. British journal of anaesthesia. 2011 Oct 1;107(4):490-502