Our taste in food often determines what we grow in our garden and our exposure to a wide variety of ethnic foods reflects that. With easy access to Thai, Mexican, Ethiopian, Indian, and other foods, the flavors of those entice us to grow the ingredients that make those foods distinctive. Chile peppers are a good example of an ingredient that has gained wide popularity.
A decade ago if you shopped for pepper plants or seeds at a garden center or greenhouse, you would likely find Bell peppers, Sweet Banana, possibly Jalapeño and Cayenne. Little else was available, mostly because customers weren’t asking for anything hotter.
Times have changed and growers and seed companies now offer dozens, even hundreds of varieties of hot peppers with varying degrees of heat. As people are exposed to more diverse food cultures, as well as the increasing ethnic diversity of people across the country, sales of hot and still-hotter peppers are off the charts.
Many Americans have developed a taste for heat, and not just modest heat, but heat with a sting. One need only look at the rapid rise in popularity of the Bhut Jolokia, or Ghost pepper (also sometimes listed as the Naga Jolokia). While not everyone wants to actually eat what was once considered the world’s hottest pepper, lots of people are growing and experimenting with it in sauces, salts and seasonings.
I began growing Ghost peppers nearly a decade ago when they were just barely rumored to exist. I grew the pepper both out of curiosity and because I enjoy very hot foods. Years of experimenting and recipe-testing with this pepper has given me great respect for this Indian heirloom pepper.
The Family Tree
Archeological evidence indicates chiles have been in cultivation by people in Central and South America for thousands of years. Today, there are over 3,000 identified varieties, from the mildest Bell peppers to the hottest of the hot. The botanical genus to which all chiles belong is Capsicum, which is a member of the wider Solanaceae, or nightshade family, meaning chile peppers are close relatives to others in the nightshade family, including tomatoes, potatoes, tobacco and eggplants.
The genus Capsicum consists of five primary species and several of them can cross-pollinate with each other, making hybridization of varieties common. (If saving your own pepper seed, bear this in mind and keep the plants segregated from those with which they might cross). The five domesticated species Annuum, Baccatum, Chinense, Frutescens and Pubescens are the most common and each has its own distinguishing characteristics.
Annuum, meaning “annual”, is actually an old and incorrect designation since all chiles are perennials under agreeable growing conditions. Annuum is the most common species and the most widely cultivated of the five. It includes the Ancho, Bell, Cayenne, Cherry, De Arbol, Jalapeño, Mirasol, ornamental types, New Mexican types, Paprika, Pimiento, Pequin, Serrano, Squash-type and Wax peppers.
Chinense was misnamed two centuries ago because it was assumed to be native to China. It actually originated in the Amazon Basin of South America and is now common throughout the Caribbean, Central and South America. Included in Chinense you’ll find the Red Savina (once considered the world’s hottest before the Ghost pepper came along), the Habanero and Scotch Bonnet. Peppers in this species are characterized by a distinctive, fruity, almost apricot fragrance. These chiles do best in areas of high humidity, need longer growing seasons and the seeds are often slow to germinate.
Baccatum, which refers to its berry-like fruiting, consists primarily of the South American cultivars known as Ajis, including Aji Amarillo, Aji Dulce, Aji Limo and others. Most of the baccatum species are tall, sometimes reaching 5 feet in height with erect pods that droop downward as they mature. Heat levels of these range from none to very hot.
Frutescens refers to its shrubby or bushy growth habit and it isn’t widely grown except for the Tabasco, which has been grown for the manufacture of the world-famous sauce of that name since 1848.
Pubescens refers to its “hairy” appearance and is probably the least common of the five domesticated species. The chile pods are usually pear or apple shaped and always have black seeds. Pubescens won’t cross-pollinate with any of the others and is also the most difficult of the five kinds to grow. The Peruvian ‘Rocoto’ and the Mexican ‘Manzano’ are both Pubescens chiles.
The Heat Factor
All peppers are rated by the Scoville Organoleptic Test, simply called Scoville Heat Units, or SHU, which measures the amount of heat.
For example, a Bell pepper rates at zero, while a Jalapeño rates between 2,500 to 8,000 SHU. The Bird’s Eye and Pequin chiles rate upwards of 50,000 SHU, the Red Savina habenero at 350,000 to 500,000 and the Bhut Jolokia/Naga Jolokia, or Ghost pepper, tips the scale as the former record holder for the world’s hottest pepper, between 855,000 to 1,450,000 SHU. The newest record holder for the world’s hottest pepper, the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, registers on the heat scale at 2.2 million SHU!
The nearer people live in relation to the Equator, the hotter the food they eat. Peppers cause the body to perspire, which is one of the natural methods the body has to keep itself cool. That’s why you’ll find food in Northern India to be milder than food in Southern India. Alaskans traditionally don’t eat hot peppers — sweating would not be good in a cold climate, but if you visit Guatemala or Southern Mexico, you will find hot peppers to be a necessary and pleasant part of daily life.
Additionally, eating hot peppers in your food, creates a feeling of euphoria, similar to the feeling you get from running, or from a really good laugh. That’s from the release of endorphins in your body as a response to any of those things, and that’s why hot peppers are almost addictive, in a good way.
It’s not just the heat that causes avid “pepperheads” to grow ever hotter peppers. Believe it or not, a Bhut Jolokia, or Ghost pepper, has flavor that is different from a Habanero or a Cayenne. To experience the taste, you can combine it with other flavors such as fruits or vegetables as well as in hot sauces or in cooked dishes.
Each year I grow around 40 varieties of hot and medium-mild peppers. Some, like the Trinidad Seasoning is almost without heat, with a thick, meaty flesh and excellent flavor. It both dries well or can be used fresh. I like to combine it with Cayennes, Jalapeños, lime juice and other ingredients when I make hot sauce, giving it a complex combination of flavors. The milder Trinidad Seasoning (not to be confused with a Trinidad Scorpion, which is wildly hot) is a background, slightly sweeter flavor that blends well with the other hot chiles.
Chile de Arbol is a cayenne-type rated as a “very hot” pepper, though it only rates around 30,000 SHUs, still less than a Habanero which rates between 50,000 and 150,000 SHU (depending upon variety). De Arbol is good when combined with New Mexico type chiles, which have little heat but pack a lot of flavor.
For a more complex flavored hot sauce, I combine Jalapeños, Habaneros, a couple of Aji Colorado and some sweet New Mexico peppers, along with a carrot, onions, garlic, lime juice and other ingredients, cooking it down then blending it to a smooth consistency in the blender. The various pepper flavors and heat levels combine to create a very tasty sauce.
Growing Hot Peppers
Peppers require conditions similar to growing tomatoes, meaning average garden soil with all-day sunlight. It’s best to not plant peppers in the same soil or beds every year, instead, rotating where you grow them. Recommended, also, is to not grow peppers of any variety where you grew tomatoes, potatoes or eggplant the year before in order to avoid diseases.
Start peppers from seeds indoors in seed-starting trays. Move them to the garden after danger of frost, soon after you have prepared the soil by mixing in well-rotted compost.
Each of the stages in the chile pepper growing process calls for a slightly different fertilizer application, so when you transplant your pepper plants into the garden, use half-strength fish emulsion to water them in (meaning if the directions call for 1 tablespoon per gallon of water, use about 1-1/2 teaspoons). Or, if you use commercial chemical fertilizer, the recommendation is a light application of 5-10-5 fertilizer worked into the soil before planting. Don’t use a higher rate of nitrogen (the first number in the 5-10-5) and similarly, be sure to use only well-rotted compost rather than fresh. Too much nitrogen will produce lush, green leafy plants with few peppers.
As soon as your chile pepper plants are beginning to bloom and set fruit, add a side dressing of either more compost, or a 5-3-3 fertilizer. My personal method is to dissolve 1 tablespoon of Epsom salts per gallon of water and use it as a foliar spray (or apply it with a sprinkler can) every 3 weeks throughout the growing season.
What is Espom Salts?
Epson Salts is a naturally-occurring mineral that was first discovered in well water in Epsom, England. It is more properly known as magnesium sulfate, and when dissolved in water it is commonly used around the world for soaking sore muscles.
Magnesium is important for production of chlorophyll and for the production of fruiting plants and nuts. Tomatoes, peppers and roses all need high levels of magnesium for optimal growth and benefi t from a foliar application of Epsom salts during the growing season to help produce good yields. Some common signs of magnesium deficiency in plants include yellowing of the leaves between the veins, leaf curling, stunted growth or lack of sweetness in the fruit.
The National Gardening Association says: “When diluted with water, and especially when applied as a foliar spray, Epsom salts can be taken up quickly by plants. Epsom salts’ magnesium content, high solubility, and ease of application as a foliar spray are the main reasons for the positive results many gardeners see in their plants.”
Try this spicy Sriracha Hot Sauce Recipe.
Jim Long’s recipes and garden stories can also be found on his gardening adventures blog: JimLongsGarden.blogspot.com.