The most commonly used generic term for members of this species is “bird peppers”, of which famous examples are the Brazilian Malaguete and African Zimbabwe varieties.
More famous than almost any other Capsicum frutescens variety has to be the Tabasco chile, immortalised for most people by the Louisiana McIlhenny family’s little bottles of fiery, fermented chile sauce of that name, famous the world over.
The species probably originated from the Amazon basin in Brazil where the Malaguete grows wild to this day. Current scientific thinking has the birthplace of Capsicum frutescens cultivation located in the Central American region of Panama whence it spread to Mexico, the Caribbean and, with the passing of time, eventually to India and the Far East where the “bird pepper” soubriquet for local, landrace chile varieties persists today
Capsicum frutescens plants are generally of compact habit, with mid-sized, ovate, smooth leaves on quite slender branches of between one and four feet in length, the final height of the mature plant in the end depending on the climatic conditions in which they are grown, the plants growing largest in hotter regions of cultivation. A single plant can produce 120 or more pods of intermediate pungency in a season, with Scoville ratings of between 30,000 and 60,000 units on average.
Pods are born erect and show fewer variations in shape, size and colour than the Capsicum annuum, Capsicum chinense, and Capsicum baccatum species, which is probably best explained by man’s comparative lack of interest in breeding Capsicum frutescens varieties, the human guiding hand being the usual reason for great morphological variety in cultivated species.
Many Capsicum frutescens varieties form the mainstay of hot sauces, both fresh and fermented, as well as being used in dried form in day to day cuisine, when fresh supplies are not readily available.