Cayenne (Capsicum frutescens)

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Cayenne (Capsicum frutescens)

Common Names

Chili, Chile, or Chilli, Hot Pepper, Capsicum, Cow Horn Peppers, Guinea Spice, Aleva or Bird Peppers, Spanish Pepper, Red Pepper, Pod Pepper, African Pepper, Zanzibar Pepper, Goat’s Pepper, Cockspur Pepper  


About This Plant


Cayenne is one of the best known of the chili peppers. It is a member of the Solenaceae family and the Capsicum genus which also includes Bell Peppers, Chilies, Paprikas, and Habaneros. The Capsicum genus comes from the Americas and has been cultivated for use for at least 7,000 years. Cayenne in particular comes from the tropical and subtropical portions of Central and South America. Some of the earliest European explorers brought Cayenne back to Europe and the chilis’ popularity quickly spread around the world. Cayenne is commonly referred to as a “pepper”, but it is not in the Piper genus (such as Black Pepper and Kava). ”Chili” is a more apt descriptor for Cayenne and other members of the Capsaicin genus plants. 


Cayenne can be described as “hot and acrid”. The “bite” of Cayenne is caused by a constituent called capsaicin. The more capsaicin a chili has, the hotter it tastes. Interestingly, the red fruit of Capsicums attract birds and as evolutionary biology would have it, birds cannot taste the heat of capsicum, so they eat the fruit and distribute the seeds elsewhere. Cayenne is anywhere between 30,000 to 50,000 SHU on the Scoville scale, which is about mid-range in terms of spiciness.


While often grown as annuals, Cayenne is actually a perennial that grows for ten years or more in a tropical environment. The plant may overwinter in cooler climates if protected from frost or moved inside during Winter months. The plants produce an abundance of thin, curved fruits that grow two to five inches long and about ½ inch in diameter. They oven have a curved tip and somewhat rippled skin. The fruits hang from the bush rather than growing upright. They have thin flesh and skin and dry nicely making them a very good candidate for dehydrating and making blends of chili powder or flakes. The fruits start as an emerald green color and mature to a scarlet red about 70 to 80 days after planting. 


Cayenne plants are small shrubs that reach about two feet in height. Their flowers are white to slightly purple with five petals. They can grow beautifully in a greenhouse or as a patio plant .  

The fruits can be dehydrated or strung up to dry. They also are good for deep freezing. Cayenne is very irritating to the eyes and any sensitive skin areas. Even washing your hands after working with the plant is often not enough to remove the irritating “burn”. Wearing gloves is highly recommended. Cayenne shouldn’t be taken in large quantities during pregnancy. People on blood thinning pharmaceuticals should talk to their doctor before using Cayenne. 


The word Cayenne is believed to have come from kian, the name of a pepper among the Tupi Indians in what is now French Guiana. The capital of the country, along with a major river, is also called Cayenne. The Cayenne variety of chili was first documented in 1493 and brought from Chile to Portugal by Christopher Columbus. It was written that the natives of the region ate chilis like one would eat an apple. Chili peppers had spiritual meaning for the Incas, Aztecs, Olmecs, and Mayans. Chili was mixed with tobacco into a magical potion used by shamans to ward off evil spirits. Warriors would burn chilis and use the smoke against the invading Spanish. 

The Hunzas in the remote regions of Pakistan use Cayenne as one of their main foods. The Hunzas live to be over a hundred years old on average and die from things such as falls of accidents, not from disease. Cayenne is believed to be one of the secrets to their longevity. 




Cayenne seeds can be sown from mid February to mid June.  Seeds should be sown just on the surface of the soil and lightly covered with a sprinkle of soil. Keep the soil evenly moist and don’t let the top of the soil dry out which is a common cause of germination failure. Equally important, don’t let seedlings become waterlogged, as this encourages rot. If sowing inside, trays can be covered with plastic film and placed in a south facing window. The ideal germination temperature is around 65 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit. 




Seedlings can be potted into individual 3-4 inch pots once they have produced their first pair of true leaves. Seedlings can be gradually acclimated to outdoor temps prior to transplanting, six to eight weeks after sowing. Plants should be spaced 18 to 24 inches apart with rows three feet apart. Nighttime temperatures below 60 degrees Fahrenheit can reduce fruit set so it’s best to wait until a couple of weeks after the last frost to transplant starts, once the soil has warmed and the weather has settled. Choose a place that has not been used for tomatoes, potatoes, or other members of this family for several years. 




Cayenne is a hot-weather crop that wants full sun and a rich, moist, well-drained soil. A light frost will damage plants and temperatures below 55 degrees Fahrenheit slow the growth and cause leaves to look yellowish. If daytime temperatures soar above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, plants will drop their flowers. Too much nitrogen in the soil will cause the plants to grow more foliage rather than fruits. 


Few pests bother chilis, but keep and eye out for aphids, slugs, pill bugs, and leafminers.  Humid weather, especially if the soil isn’t well aerated, can invite fungal diseases like leaf spot. 

Once the plants have established, it is better to water them heavily and infrequently. Plants can be pruned as needed. Once flowers are fertilized, their petals will drop off as the green middle part of the flower starts to swell. The fruits will take a few weeks to develop and a further couple weeks to turn from green to red. Fruits can be harvested while green or allowed to ripen on the plant.  If harvested early, plants will continue to flower and fruit more frequently. Use scissors to snip the fruits so you don’t damage the plant.  Plants will continue to put out fruits until the first frost of Fall.  


The fruits can be stored unwashed in the refrigerator. If you wash the fruit prior to storing, make sure they are thoroughly dried as moisture hastens spoiling. For peak flavor and nutrition, use within a week. Fruits can also be dried whole by stinging them together with a tough thread (such as a dental floss). Leave some space between each chili so that they are not touching each other and hang in a cool, dry, well-ventilated place. It takes about six weeks for chilis to dry. If dried chilis are ground into a powder, always store it in dark receptacles as the color and potency is affected by light.


Seed Harvest


To harvest Cayenne seeds, simply cut a chili in half.  All of the seeds inside are likely viable.  Collect the seeds and lay them flat on a paper towel for several days to dry, flipping them over daily. 


Plant Uses


  • Food and spice
  • Medicinal
  • Pest (and enemy) deterrent


Culinary Uses


Cayenne can be used fresh or dried in cooking, either powdered, diced, or whole.  It is versatile and has found its way into food from all over the globe and in many styles of cooking, including Cajun, Mexican, African and Asian. Cayenne can be added to egg dishes, meats, stews, casseroles, cheese dishes, hot sauces, and curries. Whole Cayennes can also be added to vinegars for a spicy condiment. 


Cayenne is well-known for its “bite” that when consumed creates an endorphin rush in the body which is said to create a euphoric state of mind. The highest amount of capsaicin, the substance that causes the heat of the chili, is located in the lining of the seeds and the membrane from which the seeds hang.  You can decrease the amount of the heat of the whole Cayenne by first removing the seeds.  For the most part, Cayenne is used in food and medicinal formulas in very small amounts.  


Cayenne, when dried and powdered, provides an invisible spiciness that permeates the entire dish. Once powdered, Cayenne does lose its zing fairly quickly. Dried Cayenne, when crushed and sprinkled on dishes provides more of a surface heat. 


In the West Indies, Cayennes are used to make a type of medicinal food dish called Mandram that is used for weak digestion and loss of appetite. It is made of thinly sliced and unskinned cucumbers, shallots, chives or onions, lemon or lime juice, Madeira, and a few Cayennes, well mashed up in the liquids. The dish is used as a chutney.  


Medicinal Uses


Generally speaking, hot chili peppers are known to be one of the healthiest plants we can eat. They are hot and acrid and are stimulants, antimicrobials, analgesics, carminatives, stypitics, antioxidants, diaphoretics, expectorants, immunostimulants, rubefacients, antifungals, metabolic stimulants and are blood moving.  


Cayenne is considered a stimulant, which is something that increases the energy output of a system or organ. It specifically affects the cardiovascular system, mucous membranes and digestion. It is used for stagnant and cold digestion. People with cold and stagnant digestion have a difficult time assimilating the nutrients from food. Cayenne is considered a powerful ally for the heart and cardiovascular system. It can help regulate cholesterol levels and reduce platelet aggregation. It is packed full of antioxidants. Cayenne also promotes secretions from the mucous membranes. It is high in Vitamin A which is essential to mucus membrane health.  It is often used to help shorten the duration of a cold or flu. A long time treatment for stopping colds involved sweating therapies such as saunas and hot baths as well as internal medicines like cayenne to help bring heat into the body and dispel coldness.


Cayenne can also be used externally. It is styptic, meaning it can stop bleeding.  It can be used in salves and linements as a pain reliever and counter irritant. Capsicum blocks substance P which transmits pain, making it useful for the topical treatments of aches and pains. Just always be sure to take measures to not irritate your eyes or other sensitive parts after handling Cayenne infused oils and salves. 




Cayenne is native to the tropical regions of South and Central America.


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