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Peppers With A Past

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Heirloom Peppers
© Baker Creek Seed Co.

By Willaim Woys Weaver

If you go through the Baker Creek seed catalog, you will discover an attractive variegated pepper called Fish Pepper.  This pepper came from my grandfather’s seed collection, passed on to him in the 1930s by African-American folk artist Horace Pippin (1888-1946) of West Chester, Pennsylvania.  The story of Pippin and his fascination with my grandfather’s garden is retold in my book Heirloom Vegetable Gardening, and while that narrative is indeed a monument to Mr. Pippin’s persistence to get stung by my grandfather’s honey bees (in order to “cure” a rheumatic condition in Pippin’s bad arm), there were a lot more Pippin peppers in the collection that have never gotten as much attention or even the widespread distribution that the Fish Pepper now enjoys. In short, Mr. Pippin bribed my grandfather with rare seeds, and among them was a pepper called Little Nubian.  I don’t think I have ever released it, not even through Seed Savers Exchange.

I thought the name a bid odd and perhaps just another cloaked way of saying something was black without actually using other more offensive labels (we all know them), but since it came from Mr. Pippen, who did not seem to have any problem with it, I accepted the whole thing on face value.  After all, there are a lot of heirlooms with names that were once considered humorous but which today are best forgotten.  So what’s in the name?  I started to do some research.

By way of description, Little Nubian is a small 2 ½ foot tall bush with black stems and leaves, black fruits, somewhat blocky in shape, and with extremely deep purple flowers.  The black pods ripen brown and then turn red.  From that point alone, it makes a nice ornamental, and due to its small size, it is ideal for pot culture --- which is how my grandfather used to grow it.  He never ate the peppers because they are little fire bombs; even one or two in a pickle changes the “accent” to volcanic.smLittleNubian

Much to my surprise, I discovered that there was indeed a nineteenth century pepper called Nubian, and it is illustrated in the color plate from an 1891 seed catalog accompanying this blog.  As you can see, that pepper is long and pointed.  It was promoted as an ornamental, but of course, anyone brave enough to eat it could test their machismo on steak or barbecue.  The conclusion I came to was that Mr. Pippin’s rare heirloom pepper must be a relative of this one, although smaller.  And by chance, I happened to be looking one day at William Titford’s 1811 Sketches Towards a Hortus Botanicus Americanus and there it was, my Little Nubian.  Its right there in the magnificently hand-colored frontispiece, and the little number on it takes you to a page which tells you succinctly exactly what this pepper is called in Jamaica where he recorded it: Sore Throat Pepper.

I thought so!  Little Nubian just had to have come from the Caribbean where spicy food is the vogue. In Jamaica the locals infuse the pepper in rum, which they use in turn as a gargle for sore throats, coughs, and anything else you want to blast out of your body in one swig.  So instead of trading off some workaday seeds for a few bee stings, Mr. Pippin entrusted to my grandfather a pepper with an amazing genealogy and most likely well embedded in the African heritage of the Caribbean.  It pleases me to know that when I grew it out last year for seed renewal, that I have become the keeper of this very precious vestige of old-time folk medicine.  I think it is time to start sharing seeds….


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