Throughout the years, I have taken breaks from gardening and plants. This is because my obsession with growing becomes overwhelming when left unchecked. I may be approaching this state again. I either must find a way to make a living from this obsession, or do what I have sporatically done throughout my life which is take short breaks from growing plants.
When I have taken these breaks, there are a few plants I still grow, no matter what. These are the crops I cannot live without. They include basil, tomatoes, and peppers.
Peppers are nightshades, related to tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, and other edible and poisonous plants. Native to the new world tropics and subtropics, they are the most widely grown (and most unusual) of the world’s spice cornucopia.
My favorite of the peppers, the hot peppers, contain a chemical called capsaicin. What is unusual about inclusion of hot peppers in world cuisine is that the valuable aspect of the chili’s influence is not based on a true FLAVOR. Flavors of food effect receptors on the tongue, and different receptors register different flavors: sweet, sour, bitter, etc. Capsaicin, from hot peppers, ironically is the plant’s defense against predators that would eat the fruits, meant to repel them. Chilis effect not flavor receptors, but pain receptors. But humans have somehow developed a love for the pain of hot peppers. And once one gets passed the pain capsaicin has on the tongue, and later, when…well you know… there are only health benefits to derive (at least as far as research can tell as of this date). Peppers seem to have a positive effect on the body, and being a bit of a stimulant, are anti-depressive.
And yes, there are the sweet peppers, of which I have some esteem, even if that esteem gets eclipsed by my adoration for chilis.
Chilis are a bit of a large subject, and I hope to cover it somewhat sufficiently tonight-which by the way, was a night I meant to go out and watch some good music, but instead ended up geeking out on plants.
Types of Peppers
There are five domesticated species of chili peppers, of which I will try to cover the best-known types.
Capsicum annuum, the most common and extensively grown of the peppers.
- Bell Pepper: picked green or ripened (and thus turning to yellow or red) these are the common sweet peppers one finds in the grocery store. Different cultivars can be more apt to producing the desired colored fruits.
- Aleppo or Halaby Pepper: popular in the Middle East and in the Mediterranean. These are grown until reddish-brown, dried and ground into a spice.
- Wax or Banana: slightly spicy but mostly sweet. These are yellow and long though can ripen to orange or red.
- Cascabel, Bola or Rattle: seeds rattle within dried fruits, which are sold throughout Mexico as a medium-hot spice.
- Cayenne: used most often as a dried, ground spice, cayenne is also popular used fresh from the garden. Fruits are long and skinny and hot.
- Chilaca: the source of the true pasilla dried pepper (though many peppers are mistakenly sold as pasilla), chilaca is a mildly spicy narrow-fruited pepper. In Oaxaca they smoke these, and use them in mole negro.
- Chungyang Red: this scorchingly hot, tiny pepper was developed in South Korea. Hard to find.
- Chiltepin: one of the hottest peppers in the world. Found growing naturally all through Mexico and even in the Southern and Southwestern U.S. (where frost is absent or rare, or microclimates exists to protect plants from frost). Small, pea-shaped fruits.
- Cubanelle: a sweet skinned, sweet pepper used extensively in the cuisine of the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Sometimes sold as poblanos in the U.S.
- Chile de árbol, Bird’s Beak, Rat’s Tail: similar to cayenne, a hot red fruited chile.
- Dundicut: from Pakistan, these hot, complex-flavored chilies may be of the species Capsicum frutescens. Usually sold dried.
- The Facing Heaven Pepper: medium hot, cone-shaped, thin-skinned pepper from Southern China which get their names from the fact that the fruits grow upside-down on plants.
- Fresno Chili: similar to the medium hot jalapeño peppers but with thinner walls, and eventually growing more conical.
- Guajillo Chili: deep red pepper that imparts a green tea and berry flavor. Large fruits impart mild to medium heat. The dried fruits are ground and made into a paste. The heat in these hits you slightly later than other peppers.
- Hungarian Wax: much like banana peppers, but hotter. One of the peppers used to make traditional paprika which ranges from mild to medium-hot.
- Italian Sweet: looking like a red hot chili pepper, this one is sweet like a bell.
- Jalapeño: The popular, medium hot peppers often found in grocery stores in the U.S. and originating in Mexico. Chipoltes are smoked, dried jalapeños.
- Mirasol: long red fruits with a distinct berry-like, fruity flavor, mildly hot. Fruits can be inconsistent.
- Medusa: fruits grow in masses, upright. They are brightly colored and sweet, though these are mostly grown as ornamentals.
- Mulato: usually found dried, dark-colored and mild to medium hot. Closely related to poblano chile. An important chile used in traditional mole.
- New Mexican or Anaheim: mildly spicy, multi-colored, long, sweet peppers. Sometimes can be slightly spicy.
- Padrón: one of the roulette-types of fairly unpredictable peppers (one out of every ten or so are hot). Hint–you can find which are the hot ones by feeling for how many seeds are within which is the determining factor. These are excellent pan-fried in olive oil. A Spanish heirloom.
- Peperoncini: mild with a slight heat and a hint of bitterness, and are commonly pickled and sold packaged in jars.
- Peter Pepper, or Penis Pepper: rare, and sometimes shaped like a penis, this one is sure to please a lot of my friends. Medium heated pepper comes in red and yellow varieties.
- Pequin: super hot, tiny pepper with citrusy and nutty flavor. Sometimes described as smokey become it is sometimes dried with wood smoke. A variety of pequin pepper called chile del monte variety is commonly found in northeast Mexico and south Texas along the Rio Grande Basin. This pepper has a unique trait in that it will not turn black with humidity or long periods of rest. Another of its qualities is that it will not produce irritation to the gastric system when consumed in moderation.
- Pimento: sweet, bright red, heart-shaped pepper are often used as the familiar red stuffing in green olives. One of the mildest peppers in the world
- Poblano: slightly unpredictable, large conical fruits. Sweeter when green, but can get pretty hot as they ripen. Different plants exhibit different levels of heat. A popular ingredient in mole.
- Puya: similar to the guajillo chile, only smaller and more potent. It has a fruity flavor that’s good in salsas and stews.
- Sante Fe Grande: mildly hot, slightly sweet, large yellow fruits. Prolific fruiter.
- Serrano: medium hot pepper with distinctively fuzzy leaves and stems. Plants can grow to five feet tall! Principal pepper in pico de gallo.
- Shishito: this Japanese variety is also one of the roulette-types of fairly unpredictable peppers.
- Tien Tsin: from China, this is a fairly hot one. Red, conical fruits.
Capsicum chinense: a group known for their exceptional heat.
- Adjuma or Ojemma: chinese origin, hot like an habanero but more boxy-shaped.
- Ali Limo: very Hht, yellow, Peruvian cultivar.
- Ali Dulce: a sweet, mild habanero-like fruit with a somewhat smoky flavor.
- Datil: like the habanero and as hot, but with sweeter, fruitier overtones
- Fatalii: from Africa, one of the hottest peppers in the world. Like an habanero but sweeter, fruity, and with yellow, squat, cone-shaped fruit.
- Habanero: often reputed as one of the hottest peppers in the world. Fruits an be many colors: white, pink, red, yellow, brown, green when unripe. Many cultivars of habaneros can make this an unpredictable fruit. Bolivia has even produces sweet, mild versions.
- Hainan Yellow Lantern or Yellow Emperor: exceptionally hot, yellow, conical fruits from China.
- Madame Jeanette: hot like habaneros but shaped like small sweet bell peppers. Come in yellow and red.
- Ghost or Bhut Jolokia: once recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the hottest pepper in the world. Wrinkled cone-shaped fruits are usually green ripening to red.
- Red Savina: much like habaneros but somewhat consistently hotter.
- Scotch Bonnet: like the habanero but with sweeter overtones, and a more stout-shaped fruit.
Capsicum frutescens is believed to be an ancestor of Capsicum chinense.
- Piri piri or African Bird’s Eye: Wild and domesticated plant with hot, red fruits that dry to brown. Cultivation is described as labor-intensive but I am not sure why. From Africa.
- Thai or Bird’s Eye: common about Asia, though probably brought over from Mexico by the Portuguese and Spanish. Very hot, short, red, conical fruits.
- Malagueta: fairly hot, small green to red fruits popular in Brazil.
- Tabasco: the source of the famous tabasco sauce, fruits face upward and are unusually moist inside. Fairly hot.
Capsicum baccatum, mostly associated with Peruvian cuisine
- Aji Amarillo: classic, yellow, peruvian chile that is fairly hot and fruity.
- Peppadew or Sweet Piquanté: mild, sweet fruits somewhat resembling cherry tomatoes.
- Lemon Drop: hot, citrus like-flavored pepper which is a popular seasoning pepper in Peru, where it is known as Kellu Uchu. Plants can be viney.
- Bishop’s Crown or Balloon: strangely-shaped, mild and sweet peppers grow on very vigorous plants.
- Brazilian Starfish: strange star-shaped fruits are hot ripening to red. Plants are large and somewhat viney.
Capsicum pubescens, the most distinctive of the genus.
- Roccoto: a very unusual pepper that can take cooler temperatures than most peppers. Fruits are round and hot, maturing to red or yellow. Plants can get large since they can live a long time. This is a very worth-while pepper to grow. As the botanical name indicates, plants are pubescent, or hairy.
Undoubtably I may have missed some important peppers, but part of the fun of growing things is finding new, exciting plants. Also, the grouping of some peppers is hotly contested (pun intended) and I don’t claim to be an expert. Please comment below about your favorite peppers that I may have missed.
Start indoors before threat of frost is over and get plants up to a good size (to a gallon-sized container if you can). They are easy to start from seed, so don’t fret. Peppers are frost tender, but if you start them early, they love a little flush of cold (just short of a frost) as seedlings though make sure you properly harden them off before you put them out. If a frost does occur, protect plants with frost cloth or other conjured-up method.
Plant in well-prepared garden soil that is enriched with a balanced compost. Too much nitrogen and you will have lush plant with few fruits. Feed regularly with kelp or compost tea and occasional fish emulsion.
Peppers love consistent moisture, so watch the watering, and mulch plants well. A little bit of shade filtering (no more than about 50%) helps plants from getting scalded by summer sun, but I have grown peppers successfully in full sun. If plants are in good soil, and mulched well, they will be fine, though the larger, bell-type peppers will often take a break when temperatures approach the triple digits.
If plants take a break in summer, keep good care of them. Unlike tomatoes, peppers stand a much better chance of fruiting a lot after the heat is over for a nice fall crop. In general peppers are way tougher than peppers, though they look daintier.
Pay attention to what your source for seed say on ultimate dimensions of your pepper plants and space accordingly. Peppers can grow fairly close together. Some of the more viney, spindly types may do better with a tomato cage. I have spoken poorly of the standard cone-shaped, cheap cages sold in nurseries before, but actually for peppers, they are ok since peppers don’t get as heavy and weighted down as tomatoes do.
When picking, tending to, and cooking hot peppers, remember that they can burn. Some people use gloves. I have this strange love of the pain of pepper on my hands when I have been handling them, but I do watch not to touch my eyes, or, er other areas of my or other person’s body. The oil can be difficult to get off your hands. Milk, oil, alcohol and sugar water all help to remove the oil.
Another note: plants grown harder, with less water and more sun, tend to be hotter.
There are countless sources for peppers. Reimer Seeds is an odd little seed company that occasionally has some surprises. They source some of the hottest peppers out there. They carry roccoto peppers which can be hard to find. Of course Baker’s Creek Heirloom Seed Company has great selection of hot peppers and sweet peppers. Padrón peppers are favorites of mine and can be difficult to find, but I noticed that Johnny’s Selected Seed carries them. Our own local Native Seed/SEARCH has a great selection of chilies including selections of chiltepin.
Selected Chili Varieties Ranked by Heat
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