Spicy Science: Plant Evolution [Big Bite Nite]

This year, Big Bite Nite is turning up the heat! Many of our participating restaurants are spicing things up with dishes served diablo, and so we’ve been thinking a lot about spice.

Like – where does spice come from?

Radishes are spicy?
You may be surprised at the range
of plants that have spice in them!

Essentially – it comes from plants. Spice is all natural! And Smithsonian Magazine recently published a fascinating article about the evolution of spice in plant populations. To quote the article:

“The heat-generating compound in chilies, capsaicin, has long been known to affect taste buds, nerve cells and nasal membranes (it puts the sting in pepper spray). But its function in wild chili plants has been mysterious.”

In other words, despite the fact that humans enjoy  super-spicy salsa, fiery Indian vindaloo or eye-watering wasabi – and that we’ve been “spicing up…food with chilies for at least 8,000 years” – there doesn’t seem to be an immediately obvious reason for plants to develop this characteristic.

So, as often happens when science meets an unanswered question, studies were undertaken. And as it turns out: “the more capsaicin, the less fungal infection.” And since fungus thrives in humid environments,  “the moister the climate, the spicier the chilies.” This is why hot chilies typically come from hot regions of the world.

Fascinating! And – we wanted to know more. So, we met up with Nancy, a botanist in addition to being our curator of entomology, Director of the Cockrell Butterfly Center, and blogger for BEYONDbones to explore the science behind the spice. Check it out in the video below!

Can’t see the movie? Click here to view it.

In the meantime, here are some other fascinating tidbits from the article:

  • Chilies aren’t really hot – capsaicin stimulates neural receptors in your tongue and skin that detect rising temperatures.
  • We really like spice – and chilies spread around the world with great speed. “Within 50 years of Columbus’ voyages, Pernambuco chilies were being cultivated in India, Japan and China. Chilies made it to the American Colonies with the English in 1621.”
  • Traces of chilies have been found “on ancient milling stones and cooking pots from the Bahamas to southern Peru.”

Check out the full Smithsonian article here. And, check out what’s happening for Big Bite Nite on April 29 – and enter to win tickets to the event, as well as check out the other videos in our spicy video series – at the event web site.

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