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Capsicum frutescens is a species of red pepper known for the pungent, spicy taste of its fruits. Some sources classify it as Capsicum annuum var frutescens. Capsicum frutescens originated in the tropics of Central America and is now naturalized in tropical regions throughout the world. It is a short-lived perennial, growing for more than one year but dying at the end of its second year.
There are several varieties of Capsicum frutescens with different shapes and sizes of fruits. Varieties include Tabasco pepper, hot cherry pepper and bird pepper. Leaf, fruit, and plant characteristics vary somewhat by variety.
Plants average 3 to 5 feet (about 0.9 to 1.5 m) tall and 2 feet (0.6 m) wide. The species has a shrubby growth pattern with a central stem and many twiggy branches. Leaves are narrow and of variable length, from 1.5 to 6 inches (about 4 to 15 cm.) The flowers are small and cream to greenish-white colored. Capsicum frutescens has a relatively extensive root system including a tap-root which varies in length depending on available moisture.
The fruits of Capsicum frutescens range from 0.6 to 1.4 inches (about 1.5 to 3.5 cm.) All are somewhat elongated but the tip varies from a sharp point to a blunt or rounded end. The fruits of all varieties share a very hot, spicy taste and are used as seasoning in cooking. They are often dried and ground into a powder; another common use is in various sauces and condiments. The fruits may sometimes be used green, but are typically harvested when they have ripened to a deep or bright red color.
Although the species is widely cultivated, it also grows wild wherever conditions permit. The plant does well in a variety of soil types from sandy to clay, but reaches maximum size in loose, well-drained soil. It will tolerate both alkaline and acid conditions. Capsicum frutescens will not grow in deep shade and requires full sun for good fruit production. In cultivation the plant is usually grown as a long season annual while wild plants will produce for a second growing season before dying.
Wild plants are typically found in abandoned fields, along roadsides and at the edges of forests. The species grows at altitudes from sea level to 6,550 feet (about 2,000 m.) Capsicum frutescens has no frost tolerance and does not usually grow well where temperatures often dip below 45 degrees F (about 7 degrees C.)