Hot, sweet, or anywhere in between, peppers are delightfully delectable. Native to Mexico and Central America, they are eaten throughout the world. The earliest record of peppers, 7000 BC, comes from seeds of a wild form of pepper found in a Mexican archaeological site. Cultivated peppers (Capsicum annuum) date to 5000 BC, the age of pre-Columbian ceramics found illustrated with peppers. In Europe, peppers didn't appear until 1500 AD. The hot varieties were dried, ground, and used as a substitute for black pepper (Piper nigrum), which is a completely different plant.
SWEET BELL PEPPERS
Pick up a seed catalog today to see how many new colorful hybrids (chocolate, orange, lilac, purple, ivory, and yellow...no blue) are available to gardeners. Many gardeners, cooks, and consumers eat sweet bell peppers before they're ripe or when they're green. Because of this, they are mistakenly called green peppers. They're green because they are immature. Sweet peppers turn red when left on the plant long enough to mature, usually 75 days. Many of the new colorful bell pepper hybrids are available with short maturity dates and will produce ripe peppers in 60 days. Although they are meant to be eaten when they're one of the above-mentioned hues, they will turn red if they're left on the plant long enough to mature fully.
Of the many sweet-tasting peppers grown at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden, the following are highly recommended:
- 'Blushing Beauty', a hybrid bell, begins as a pale green or ivory pepper, then graduates to pale pink and finally rosy red in 75 days.
- 'Golden Marconi', a long, slender, frying or grilling pepper, starts out light green, then matures to gold in 90 days.
- 'Jumbo Stuff', a long, yellow, tapered frying pepper that is good for stuffing, matures in 70 days.
HOT CHILI PEPPERS
Hot peppers, often referred to as chili or chile peppers, are found in various sizes, colors and degrees of heat. Here again, red is the mature color, but chili peppers are available in many colors, including blue. These are a few hot peppers to choose for your garden:
- 'Czechoslovakian Black' comes from a tall plant with beautiful dark green foliage with purple veins. The purple-black peppers are mildly hot, but turn medium hot as they mature to red.
- 'Almapaprika' or 'Hot Apple' is widely grown in Hungary. This is a medium-hot pepper that starts outs white but matures to red.
- 'Kalia' is very hot and is meant to be eaten when deep red.
CULTURE AND CARE
Guidelines for growing both sweet and hot peppers are fairly similar. Plant small transplants in well-drained soil, in full sun, after the danger of frost has passed. Peppers are true warm-season vegetables and cannot tolerate frost. Make sure the plants receive 1 inch of water weekly and provide uniform moisture throughout the season. Fertilize with a dilute all-purpose fertilizer after the first peppers set. Hot, dry winds or a lack of moisture will prevent fruit set and/or cause fruit to drop off the plant. Plant hot and sweet peppers as far away from each other as possible since they can cross-pollinate. When it comes time to harvest, cut — don't pull — the pepper from the plant. Pulling can break the whole branch or create a wound that invites disease.
In 1912 a pharmacist named Scoville worked out a scale for measuring chili heat. It's not a scientific measurement, but it does give an idea as to how hot is hot. A capsaicin alkaloid produces the burning sensation and determines the chili's heat index. For example, a bell pepper rates 0 on this scale; a poblano ancho rates 1,000 to 1,500 Scoville units; a jalapeno is 3,500 to 10,000; habanero is 150,000 to 350,000; and a Caribbean red can go as high as 445,000 Scoville units.