Philadelphia Pepper Trail

August 5, 2011

Willings Barbados Bird Pepper from Bartram’s Garden

This tiny hot pepper grows in the house garden at Bartram’s Garden in West Philly.

It was given to Bartram’s gardeners by William Woys Weaver, noted food historian and author of many articles and books on American foodways. In his book, Heirloom Vegetable Gardening, Weaver writes about the origins of this pepper, known botanically as Capsicum annuum var. aviculare.

“During the 1760s,” Weaver writes, “Philadelphia botanist John Bartram assembled a large assortment of tropical plants for botanical enthusiast Sir John St. Clair at his estate near Trenton, New Jersey… This highly ornamental pepper is believed to have been part of the original St. Clair collection. It is a wild pepper (landrace) that has not submitted to the taming hand of gardeners in spite of its long cultivation in pots.”

In Philadelphia, the Willings Barbados pepper was known as the Barberry or Pipperidge pepper, says Weaver. Because of its attractive foliage and berries, it was typically used as an ornamental houseplant during the 18th and 19th centuries. The berries, harvested green or ripe red, had multiple culinary uses as well. It was a popular Caribbean-style condiment in both Philadelphia and Charleston cooking, particularly as a seasoning for soups, sauces and stews, but it was also used to make a “pepper sherry” prepared with Madeira, says Weaver.

The pepper most likely gets its name from Charles Willing (1738-1788), the second son of a prosperous merchant and politician, also named Charles Willing, who served two terms as City mayor, in 1748 and again in 1754. Charles, the son, who also engaged in mercantile ventures, resided for many years in Barbados, where he married Elizabeth Hannah Carrington. Willing supplied many exotic plants and foods for Philadelphia’s extensive food markets and to botanic collectors and suppliers such as John Bartram.

Bird peppers are a self-seeding variety of wild hot pepper, easily spread by birds, who ingest them, unaffected by the heat of the pepper.

The Willings Barbados Bird Pepper is an heirloom variety; seeds can be purchased on line from various suppliers.

References

William Woys Weaver, Heirloom Vegetable Gardening: A Master Gardener’s Guide to Planting, Seed Saving, and Cultural History, published by Henry Holt & Company, ©1997.

Genealogies of Barbados Families; from Caribbeana and The Journal of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, reprint by genealogical Publishing Co., Inc. Baltimore, Maryland © 1983.

Anita Mc Kelvey © 2011-2016 The Philadelphia Pepper Project

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