Cayenne (Capsicum frutescens)

Cayenne (Capsicum frutescens)

Cayenne is native to Central and South America and Zanzibar. It grows as a perennial in its native tropical habitat, but in North America and Europe it is grown as an annual.


Cayenne is a shrublike plant that grows to a height of 24 inches. The leaves are elliptical, slightly leathery, dark green and smooth. The flowers produce pods of flat, white, pungent seeds. These pods (peppers) range in color from green when immature to purple, red, orange or yellow when ripe. Plants grow well in containers and can be blended into the landscape.


Cayenne needs a sunny location and rich, well-composted soil. Start seeds indoors six to eight weeks before setting the plants out. Transplant outdoors when all danger of frost has passed and the soil is warm.


Pick the pods when the color has developed fully and hang them up to dry until they are required. The pods may also be used fresh.

Culinary uses

Use the fresh or dried whole pods. Grind the dried pods to use as spice.

Culinary Oils and Vinegars

Medicinal Use

Cayenne should never be used by pregnant or lactating women.

Cayenne for the Stomach
In many countries, red pepper is believed to be a stomach-settling digestive aid. Varro E. Tyler, PhD, professor of pharmacognosy at Purdue University School of Pharmacy in West Lafayette, Ind., and author of The Honest Herbal believes it works. Cayenne stimulates the flow of saliva and stomach secretions. Saliva contains enzymes that begin the breakdown of carbohydrates, and stomach secretions contain acids and other digestive substances.

Contrary to popular belief, eating hot peppers doesn't harm the stomach. In one study, researchers used a tiny video camera to examine subjects' stomach linings after both bland meals and meals liberally spiced with jalapeno peppers, another close cousin of cayenne. They concluded that eating highly spiced meals causes no damage to the stomach in people with normal gastrointestinal tracts. Eating hot peppers may not be a good idea for people who have stomach or intestinal problems.

For red pepper burns in the mouth or on the skin, milk is the best remedy. The proteins in milk wash away capsaicin, the chemical responsible for the heat.

Cayenne for Muscle Pain
For centuries, herbalists have recommended rubbing red pepper onto sore muscles and joints. Medically known as a counterirritant, this treatment causes minor superficial discomfort but distracts the person from the more severe, deeper pain. Heet, a capsaicin-based counter-irritant cream, is available over the counter.

Recently, however, red pepper has been shown to provide more compelling relief for certain kinds of chronic pain. For reasons still not completely understood, capsaicin interferes with the action of substance P -- a nerve chemical that sends pain messages to the brain.

"Capsaicin has proved so effective at relieving pain that it's the active ingredient in the over-the-counter cream Zostrix," says James A. Duke, PhD, a retired botanist from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and author of The CRC Handbook of Medicinal Herbs. Doctors now recommend Zostrix for arthritis, diabetic foot pain and the pain of shingles.

Cayenne for Headaches
Research suggests that capsaicin can also help relieve cluster headaches. In one study, people with cluster headaches rubbed a capsaicin preparation inside and outside their noses on the same side of the head as the headache pain. Within five days, 75 percent reported less pain and fewer headaches. They also reported burning nostrils and runny noses, but these side effects subsided within a week.

Finally, red pepper may help the heart. "It cuts cholesterol levels and reduces the risk of the internal blood clots that trigger heart attacks," says Daniel B. Mowrey, PhD, director of the American Phytotherapy Research Laboratory in Salt Lake City, and author of The Scientific Validation of Herbal Medicine.

Perhaps the best way to enjoy cayenne's medicinal benefits is simply to season your food to taste. Even small amounts of red pepper can be therapeutic.

Remember to wash your hands thoroughly after using either cayenne or Zostrix. Cayenne may be kind to your stomach lining, but you definitely don't want to get any in your eyes.

To aid digestion and possibly reduce the risk of heart disease, experts recommend cayenne in capsules, available from most herbal stores. Follow the directions on the package.

Other Uses

Dried cayenne pods are attractive additions to dried arrangements and crafts. Cayenne can be made into a insect spray for the garden. See Red Pepper Spray Concentrate.

Grow the Best Peppers
This booklet is sure to help you discover your 'Perfect Pepper.' You'll also learn how to:

  • Prepare the perfect garden plot
  • Feed, mulch and water your pepper plants for maximum production
  • Store peppers for optimum flavor
  • Discover a diversity of shapes, sizes, color and flavors that will perk up your menus year-round

About this Author