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FISH PEPPER - An enduring story of lost and found gardening history

This heirloom cultivar of capsicum annum originated in southern Mexico, but made its way to Caribbean and into North America, particularly to the oyster and crab houses of Baltimore, Philadelphia and the Chesapeake Bay region. Part of the story is about how slaves, freedmen and farmers used the young treasured the fruit for seafood sauces and now about how African-Americans are re-connecting with this part of African-American gardening history.

Bees were part of a barter exchange for fish pepper seeds after WWI
Bees were an important link in the survival of the fish pepper.

The next part of the story is about how the seeds were kept by African-American artist Horace Pippin, who was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania. In the 1940s, through a bartering arrangement, seeds landed in the hands of H. Ralph Weaver, grandfather of seed keeper and heirloom plant historian William Woys Weaver. Horace Pippin suffered from arthritis that he treated with a folk remedy of bee stings. H. Ralph Weaver had a bee farm and traded seeds for bees.

Rediscovery is the next part of the fish pepper story. In 1995, Willian Woys Weaver found the fish pepper seeds in his grandmother’s freezer and sent those seeds off to Seed Savers Exchange. And, as they say, the rest is fish pepper history.

The story wouldn’t be complete without adding that you can buy hot sauce based on the fish peppers. In November 2020, the Truelove Seeds podcast, “Seeds & Their People” devoted an episode to the fish pepper in history and the present day.

Woodberry Kitchen, a Baltimore restaurant, sells “Snake Oil” made with fish peppers, cider vinegar and sea salt. Snake Oil is also for sale through Farm Alliance of Baltimore. I buy my fish pepper seedlings from Logan’s Gardens in Los Angeles, but you can always start them from seed (see below). So be on the lookout for whether your local nursery has seedlings or you may need to grow from seeds.

Close-up of a Fish Pepper Plant with Colorful Chili Peppers
Close-up of a Fish Pepper plant with colorful peppers.

Plants of this pepper are festooned with with variegated leaves of green and white. The fruits range in colors - green, white, brown, variegated and red.

Botanical name: Capsicum annum, cultivar


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