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VEGETABLE OF THE YEAR

written by Marianne C. Ophardt WSU Extension Faculty for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA I know you’ve been anxiously awaiting the announcement of the National Garden Bureau’s vegetable of the year… so may I have a drum roll please…. The National Garden Bureau has designated 2006 as the Year of the Chile Pepper! Here’s a vegetable that’s really hot. (Pun intended… I just couldn’t resist.) First, let’s clear up some confusion over the chile pepper’s name. Is it ‘chile’ or ‘chili?’ It depends on who you ask, but the most accepted form is ‘chile’ … unless you ask a Brit or some folks in the Southwest. They use ‘chilli.’ In its native South America, the chile pepper is a perennial sub shrub. Here we grow it as an annual. Hot and sweet peppers are both believed to have originated in Central and South America. While much doubt has been cast upon Christopher Columbus’ discovery of North America, it’s believed that in his search for a shorter trade route to the East Indies he came upon chile peppers in the Caribbean. He found their fiery taste not unlike that of black pepper (Piper nigrum), a spice grown in the East Indies. While not related at all, he called this new hot veggie a ‘pepper.’ Diego Alavrez Chanca, a physician on Columbus’ second voyage to the West Indies, took chile peppers back to Spain. After their introduction in Spain by Chanca, traders spread chile peppers throughout the world to Southeast Asia and India where they were readily accepted and incorporated into the native spicy cuisines. The use of chile peppers also spread to the Middle East and Europe. It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that they became common in this country. However, they had been part of the regional cuisine of New Orleans and the Southwest earlier. Chile peppers belong to the nightshade family, along with tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplant. There are five domesticated species of chile peppers, Capsicum annuum, Capsicum chinense, Capsicum frutescens, Capsicum baccatum, and Capsicum pubescens. It’s interesting to note that the sweet bell pepper is the same species, Capsicum annuum, as many hot chile peppers. The difference is that the hot peppers contain capsaicin, an alkaloid compound that makes hot peppers ‘hot’ tasting. Capsaicin is produced in the veins and placental tissue inside the pepper. The tissues containing the ‘hot stuff’ appear as a yellowish band on the inner walls. The more capsaicin contained in the tissues, the hotter the pepper. Capsaicin levels will vary due to cultural conditions, but is genetically determined with certain types and varieties being hotter than others. The most common way to scientifically measure the ‘hotness’ of a chile pepper variety is using the Scoville test. Heat units are assigned based on the hotness of the pepper. The hotter the pepper, the higher the number of Scoville Heat Units (SUs). Sweet bell peppers register ‘0″ in SUs. Other varieties of Capsicum annuum register much higher on the scale. Serrano register at 4,000 SUs, Cayenne at 8,000, Jalapeno at 25,000 and Thai Hot at 60,000. The even hotter Tabasco, a variety of Capsicum frutescens, is found at 120,000 on the scale. However, it’s the Habaneros, varieties of Capsicum chinense, that come in at the top the scale. Red Habaneros sizzle with 150,000 SHUs and Orange Habaneros set fires with 210,00 SUs. Masochistic chile pepper afficionados love to see who can eat the hottest pepper and live to tell about it. The capsaicin contained in chile peppers can cause pain in other ways. It’s recommended that care be taken when handling chile peppers. Wear latex gloves when harvesting or preparing them. Many people have learned the hard way that the capsaicin can be picked up on the skin and accidentally transferred to the eyes, mouth, or nose, causing a painful burning sensation. Note that pepper spray, used as a substitute for mace, can temporarily incapacitate a person. Growing chile peppers is as easy as growing sweet peppers, sometimes even easier. If you want a special variety, you’ll probably have to grow your own transplants, but many gardeners simply purchase transplants in the spring. Pick those transplants that are sturdy and have dark green leaves. Avoid spindly plants or those with off-color yellowish leaves. Peppers are a warm season plant. Don’t plant your pepper transplants outdoors until the soil warms up, when all chance of frost is past, and the weather heats up a bit… when the nighttime temperature is consistently above 50 degrees. Set plants about 24 inches apart in a bed or row. They need full sun and do best with consistently moderately moist soil. If needed, fertilize them with a water-soluble transplant fertilizer at planting time and then again six weeks later. While peppers need adequate fertilizer, too much nitrogen will result in big pepper plants with few peppers. Take care not to over-fertilize. Because of fungus diseases in the soil, you should be sure to rotate your garden crops. Don’t plant peppers in the same area that you grew peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, or eggplants last year. One obstacle you may face growing chile peppers is a lack of fruit set. Most peppers set best when the daytime temperature is between 65 and 80 degrees. When daytime temperatures are above 90 degrees or nighttime temperatures are below 55 degrees or above 75 degrees, the fruit simply won’t set. Given the extremely hot July and August months in this region, it’s not unusual for fruit set to stop during the hot summer months and pick up as the weather begins to cool down a bit in late summer. However, some varieties are less sensitive to hot weather than others. With so many different types and varieties of chile peppers, it can be hard to tell when to harvest them. Most chile peppers start out green and then turn color at maturity when fully ripe. Seed packets are a good guide for determining what color they should be when ripe… orange, red, yellow, or brown. Some peppers are eaten when they’re still green, such as Jalepenos and Serranos. Cayennes are picked when fully ripe and red. For many, it’s a matter of personal preference. When harvesting don’t pull the fruit from the plant, as the brittle stems of the plant may break. Instead, snip the fruit stems with clippers or scissors. Thanks to Christopher Columbus chile peppers are grown in most parts of the world, with Asia as the largest producer. So celebrate 2006 by planting some of these pungent peppers in your garden this year. No vegetables in your garden? Why not plant one of the ornamental chile peppers. ‘Black Pearl’ is a 2006 All American Selections winner. It has very dark purple leaves and shiny almost black purple fruit.

Published: 1/28/2006 11:27 AM

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