With the heat of mid-July approaching and fireworks going off, why not plant some firecrackers? Peppers are lovely plants that are fairly easy to grow year-round. The fruit, especially the hot chili pepper, also has some wonderful health benefits in addition to its thrilling taste sensations.
Though native populations in South America were growing several dozen pepper varieties for centuries, it wasn’t until Columbus returned to Europe with several samples in 1493 that the cultivation of Capsicum annum exploded. Thousands of pepper varieties have been created in the 500 years since the first species were exported from South America. The pungent fruit of the chili pepper has since become one of the world’s most important spices.
Upon arrival in Europe, the name “pepper” was attached to the plant based on the piquant flavor of the fruit, reminiscent of black pepper, Piper nigrum. No botanical connection exists between the two plants, however. In the mid-1700s, when Carl Linnaeus was classifying and assigning botanical names to plants, the peppers were assigned to the Solanaceae family along with tomatoes, eggplant and potatoes, largely because of the similarity of their flowers. Peppers were given the botanical name, Capsicum. This could have been derived from the Latin word capsa for “box,” relating to the shape of the fruit or from the Greek word kapto meaning “to bite” referring to the fruit’s pungent taste. In either case, most of the peppers grown today carry the botanical name Capsicum annuum. Some of the hottest varieties are sometimes classified as C. chinense, though they originated in the Amazon valley.
The common name “chili” is the English translation of the native Nahuatl word cilli, which was assigned to the plant by native speakers in South America for millennia. Numerous cultivars and varieties have been developed under this name.
One method of classifying and organizing the numerous pepper varieties was designed by an American pharmacist named Wilbur Scoville in 1912. The Scoville scale is a measurement of the heat of a chili pepper. Scoville heat units go from 0 to 16,000,000 SHU and are a direct indication of the amount of capsaicin present in the pepper. Most of the capsaicin in peppers is held in the membrane around the seeds. Removing the seeds and membrane can slightly reduce the fruit’s heat.
All of the sweet or bell peppers register around 0 SHU, at the bottom of Scoville’s scale. These are grown to be eaten fresh, raw, roasted or as a flavor additive to other dishes. Pimento and paprika are also considered sweet peppers but have some capsaicin present and can add interesting color and flavor to a variety of recipes. If you want a little kick, try growing banana peppers or pepperoncinis. Anaheim peppers, poblanos and jalapenos have significant heat but less burn than the cayenne. Our small Hawaiian chili pepper, sometimes known as a “bird pepper,” falls in the range of 10,000 to 20,000 SHU.
For those who have tough tongues and high heat tolerance you might want to consider growing peppers that contain more than 100,000 SHUs. These include most habaneros, the scotch bonnet and the hottest pepper in the world, the Bhut Jolokia. Though many seed catalogs and local suppliers carry some of these seeds, the great varieties of seeds and descriptive information can be found at websites such as peppergal.com or pepperlover.com. “The Complete Chile Pepper Book: A Gardener’s Guide to Choosing, Growing, Preserving, and Cooking” can also offer help deciding what varieties to grow and how to use them.
The health benefits of capsaicin have been researched and are a good reason to consider growing your own hot peppers. At a recent meeting of the American Chemical Society, findings that capsaicin reduced heart attack risk were presented. Earlier research also links the spicy compound with balancing cholesterol and blood pressure levels, aiding digestion and stomach problems and providing pain relief and increased blood circulation when applied topically. You might consider increasing your heat tolerance for peppers for health reasons.
Around the globe, chili peppers are used in a multitude of ways. They flavor many dishes, both sweet and savory well beyond their native Central and South American countries. They are found in medicine, pharmaceutical products and cosmetics. For more information about the uses of individual varieties, check Hector Valenzuela’s recent article at hawaiihomegrown.net.
Pepper plants are best categorized as shrubs, though their size widely depends on growing conditions, as well as the variety. In temperate climates, they are considered annuals, but in Hawaii they can continue growing and producing for many years. Though their stems are usually tender and green, they can become thicker, harder and woody after a few years in the ground.
Most pepper plants have soft dark green or purple tinted leaves that are usually ovate or elliptic in shape. Pepper flowers are similar in structure to other members of the Solanaceae family with small, white or cream-colored petals arranged in a five-point star shape. Once the flowers are pollinated, fruit develops in place of the pollinated flower. Fruit size and color varies widely depending on variety. All these features add up to an attractive plant that can add beauty, style and color to your garden, as well as healthy flavors to your table.
Pepper plants are not hard to grow. They prefer a sunny warm, location in soil around pH 6 that drains well and has organic matter incorporated. To get varieties that you like, you should start from seed or find a nursery that carries unusual varieties.
The best way to get rapid germination of pepper seeds is to plant the seeds no more than 1⁄4-inch deep in a good, sterile potting mix and maintain a soil temperature between 80 and 90 degrees. If you don’t have a spot this warm, out of full sun, you can use a seedling heat mat. Pepper seeds germinate very slowly in cooler soil.
When the first true leaves appear, you can remove them from the seeding trays and put them in larger pots and fertilize. Locate these pots in a sunny location and in a few more weeks, when the plants get stronger, they can be placed in the garden. If the nighttime temperatures are less than 60 degrees, they will often produce flowers earlier and more abundantly.
Peppers require little care if they are kept healthy and adequately watered. They do best in soil that dries out a bit between waterings and where good fertility is maintained.
Though occasional pests can attack pepper plants, most insect attacks can be controlled with safer soap and horticultural oil. The pepper weevil, if present, can be controlled with an organic pyrethrin product and caterpillars treated with bacillus thuringensis.
Most pepper varieties will produce fruit in 60 to 90 days from planting. Several nurseries carry standard bell peppers and a few popular chili peppers. To get the plants you want, seek a nursery that carries a variety of seeds or specializes in edible plants or order seeds online.
Diana Duff is a local organic farmer, plant adviser and consultant.