The Albino Bullnose Pepper
The Captivating History of the Albino bullnose pepper
One of the greatest things about growing heirloom vegetables is knowing there is a rich, compelling story behind each one. Heirloom vegetables are around today because gardeners hundreds of years ago chose to keep propagating them. The history of heirlooms is the story of real people, their culture, values, and interests. The heirloom vegetable story is not one about enormous companies, labs, and sterile reproductions. When you hear the origin story behind an heirloom vegetable, you will discover our ancestors and predecessors’ history, too.
The origination story of the Albino Bullnose Pepper (Capsicum annuum) in the United States is fascinating. While Thomas Jefferson was putting forward the First Continental Congress instructions in 1774, he was also growing the Albino Bullnose Pepper at his Monticello estate. It is believed Jefferson was among the first gardeners to grow this unique looking and delicious pepper variety. We like to picture Mr. Jefferson sitting at his kitchen table enjoying a large salad with vegetables picked fresh from his garden, including thick slices of Bullnose pepper. And, maybe, just maybe, in 1796, writing the Declaration of Independence at the same time.
Thomas Jefferson grew over 300 varieties of heirloom vegetables at his mountaintop home and kept meticulous notes about each one’s growth traits, practices, and yields. He must have really liked the Bullnose because he cultivated it for years. It is unknown if he was the very first to grow this variety of pepper in the United States, but his is the first written recording. Albino Bullnose Peppers are still grown in the Monticello gardens to this day.
The Albino Bullnose Pepper earns its name easily. The fruits start out a beautiful cream color, an unusual feature for sweet bell peppers. The young fruits stand out starkly against the green foliage, creating a stunning aesthetic contrast. As they mature, they turn green, then a deep, vibrant scarlet red. The bottom lobes are odd-shaped, not like most bell peppers, which have three or four clearly defined ones. We don’t know who gave these peppers their Bullnose name, but we can easily picture them looking at the strangely shaped lobes and seeing a bull’s nose.
A few years after Jefferson started growing them, in 1796, Amelia Simmons published “American Cookery” and mentioned the Bullnose Pepper by name. The importance of Amelia Simmon’s cookbook is significant; it is thought to be the first truly American cookbook written by an American and also published in the United States. Previously, all cookbooks were of British origin. The Bullnose pepper variety obviously made quite an impact on gardeners in the early years of the United States to be included in such a historical statement. It is also significant to the beginnings of American culinary history.
While Thomas Jefferson may have been one of the first people to grow the Albino Bullnose Pepper in the American colonies, this pepper is not native to North America. The Bullnose originated in India, possibly around 1759. Or, travelers brought it to the Americas in 1759. It isn’t easy to decipher for sure whether that date is when India first cultivated the Bullnose or when seeds became available to American colonists.
The Bullnose pepper came about from a spontaneous mutation of three and four-lobed peppers. People in India enjoyed this new evolution so much that they began to cultivate it purposefully. The unique elongated lobes, which do look very much like a bull’s nose, became the trademark of this mild yet punchy, crunchy, thick-walled pepper.
Funnily enough, the very first bell-type sweet peppers originated in Central and South America, where they grow wild. Portuguese and Spanish traders introduced the bell pepper to Africa, Asia, and Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. After extensive cultivation and selective breeding, scores of new varieties were developed. So, the Albino Bullnose Pepper’s real journey is rather astounding and quite circular – from South America to Europe, then on to Asia, and more specifically India, and then all the way back across the ocean to North America.
After the Albino Bell Pepper’s early success with gardeners and cooks, it became commercially available in 1853. Prior to that, seeds were exchanged among friends and family, used as a trade commodity, and moved about the country in a broad, loose fashion. This is how the majority of heirloom seeds start out; a gardener likes the plant and end product and shares it with family, friends, and neighbors. Commercial selling of vegetable seeds was not the billion-dollar business it is today. If you wanted a good-producing tomato, you went and talked to your neighbors to see what they were having success growing.
The Bullnose pepper became a top-seller in the 1800s. Folks loved the thick flesh and unique combination of sweet flavor with a hint of heat. The pepper flesh is the sweet part, while the ribs pack a little spice. The Albino Bullnose was also appreciated for its dwarf-like size, early maturation, and abundant yields. Bullnose pepper plants generally don’t grow bigger than 2′ tall, and one plant will produce up to a dozen red blocky-shaped 3-4″ fruits.
In 1863, Fearing Burr wrote about the Albino Bullnose Pepper in his ground-breaking book, “Field and Garden Vegetables of America.” There he described them as the “best and most wholesome of all pickled peppers.” It seems the Bullnose pepper was especially popular for making pickled peppers during this time. They were commonly used to make mangos – green peppers stuffed then pickled. In fact, some folks in the Midwest still refer to green peppers as mangoes, which leads to another fascinating story about language and common colloquialisms.
The early success of the Bullnose didn’t last, though. New cultivators based on the Albino Bullnose began to displace the original. Varieties with larger fruits, better adaptation to climate differences, boxier form, and more uniform shape took over the pepper market. The popular California Wonder and Yolo Wonder peppers are derivations of the early Albino Bullnose Pepper.
Today, Albino Bullnose Peppers are making a small comeback. Several years ago, the Bullnose was listed on the Ark of Taste produced by the Slow Food USA movement. This catalog highlights seeds, vegetables, and foods in danger of extinction across the United States and worldwide. Thankfully, it is no longer on that list as more and more gardeners are discovering the almost-lost wonders of the Albino Bullnose Pepper. This small, crunchy sweet, yet spicy pepper is an integral part of our heritage and culinary history and deserves a spot back in our home gardens!