It is believed that chilies were first cultivated in Central and South America some 6,000 years ago. Chile peppers originated in the lowlands of Brazil as small red, round, “berry-like” fruits. This location called the ‘nuclear area’ has the greatest number of wild species of chili peppers in the world today. Scientists believe that birds are mainly responsible for the spread of wild chili peppers out of this ‘nuclear area.’ Over the centuries birds developed a symbiotic relationship with chili peppers. Birds do not have the receptors in their mouths that feel heat and a bird’s digestive system does not harm the chili pepper seed. So while birds could go around gathering up the small fruits and consuming them with no adverse effects, dispersed seeds would grow into new plants.
Many scientists also believe that chili pepper plants evolved the capsaicinoids, the chemical that makes chili peppers hot, to deter mammals from eating the pods, thus ensuring the spread and continuation of the species. The fruit of wild chili peppers, when ripe, are easily removed from the plant by birds, however when green will not pull away from the calyx very easily, thus ensuring that only viable seeds are being dispersed.

Domestication and Types

There are five domesticated and 25 known wild species of chili peppers. The domesticated species include annuum, chinense, frutescens, baccatum, and pubescens.

C. annuum, has the greatest number of varieties and contains the New Mexican, jalapeño, bell pepper, cherry, poblano, and hundreds more pod types.

C. chinense has the habanero and scotch bonnet, while

C. frutescens has the famous Tabasco.

C. baccatum are the South American ‘aji’s’ while

C. pubescens is the ‘Rocoto’ and ‘Manzano’.

The Spread of Chile Peppers

When Christopher Columbus was looking for a new spice trade route and bumped into the new world, he came across these new fruits when the Western Natives (probaby on one of the Caribbean Islands) offered him some chili. When he ate the pods he felt the same “burn” or heat felt from black pepper and he mistakenly called it “pepper” this is why today chilies are called peppers. Columbus took the fiery pods back to Spain and they quickly spread across the Eastern hemisphere. It is thought that African slave traders were instrumental in introducing the chili back across the Atlantic to North America.

Chiles are now used in almost every international cuisine and are grown in almost every country in the world.

The precise time line for the chili migration is not known but the animation above is proposed as being probable.
There are several stories about how chili peppers came to New Mexico, some scientists believe that Onate brought them with him on his expedition of the Camino Real and others believe they arrived in New Mexico through trade between the Pueblo Indians of the Southwest and the Toltec Indians of Mexico. There is no archeological evidence to neither prove nor dispel either theory. But one thing is for sure, the Native Pueblo Indians of the southwest were definitely growing chili pepper.

New Mexican Chile Peppers

Today many of these chili peppers that were grown for thousands of years are still being grown in small family oriented farms scattered around Northern New Mexico. However these landrace chili peppers are dying out because there are more “robust” varieties that are more desirable to the industry. Back at the turn of the 20th century, Fabian Garcia, a pioneer horticulturist at New Mexico State University, realized the problems inherent with native landraces and introduced both the savior and ruin of the chili pepper industry: ‘New Mexico No. 9'. This cultivar was a farmer's dream, with its regular size and shape and dependable heat. It was a commercial success and kicked-off the Mexican food boom in America. Farmers, in particular in southern New Mexico where the growing season is longer, eagerly swapped out their traditional landraces for the new cultivar and started turning out profitable crops. 
On the other hand, the landraces that existed in the Southern part of the State have vanished and been replaced by more commercially viable options. Dr Garcia bred several varieties of Mexican pasilla and chili pepper in Colorado to come up with the hybrid now known as the New Mexican pod type. Green chili pepper is produced mainly for the fresh market with a small portion going to processing, almost all of the red chili pepper and cayenne produced is processed. Paprika is used mostly for its coloring agent properties.

Three southern New Mexico counties account for 75 percent of all chili pepper acreage in the United States. Dona Ana, Luna and Hidalgo account for 20 percent of the entire state’s harvest and almost the entire northern New Mexico crop is destined for the fresh market. 
New Mexico’s cash crop of chili peppers, which includes; green and red New Mexican chili pepper peppers, jalapeños, cayennes and paprika, is worth $60 million at harvest. After processing this value quadruples.

Chile Pepper Production

There are many factors that affect chili pepper production, including pests and disease. Many chili pepper researchers describe chili peppers as not liking to get their “feet” wet. In most areas of the world, chili pepper growers can experience harsh losses if their fields are in standing water for greater than a 24 hour period.

The loss is due to the soil born fungus called phytophthora. Other diseases include curly top, which is transmitted by the leaf hopper insect, powdery mildew, and damping off. Many other insects which make chili pepper peppers a host include, aphids, thrips and whiteflies.

Extracted from: A Chile Pepper Institute publication, New Mexico State University © 2007

World production of chilies amounts to approximately 7,000,000 metric tonnes.
India is the largest producer with an estimated 1,100,000 metric tonnes.

Main exporters of chilies (note: India exports only 10% of it's production)

The Scoville Scale

Herbs and Spices

Yorky's Mates