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Sage Garden Blog

Eat the heat! Growing hot peppers

There is something about hot, hot peppers. The intrigue certainly grabbed the attention of Columbus and other early European explorers, who were responsible for collecting chilies from Central America and starting the world-wide dissemination of the now ubiquitous spice. Chilies are so central to Asian, Indian, African, and other world cuisines and cultures, it is hard to imagine the spicy fruits were only introduced in relatively recent times. But it is no surprise hot peppers gained such popularity, given the taste-sensory, health, and food preservations qualities associated with peppers.

Gardeners in northern regions are not immune to pepper addiction! In fact, a sure reason peppers have become a global seasoning is the adaptable nature of the plants. In Manitoba, almost all types of hot pepper can be grown to fruition so long as the seeds are started early enough, and plans are made to shelter plants from early fall frosts.

There are four major species of chili pepper (and several lesser grown species), with an endless number of tempting cultivars to pique the senses.Capsicum annuum includes many of the larger fruiting peppers (including sweet bell peppers), such as Banana, Hungarian, Jalapeno, Ancho, Aneheim and more. These plants are are easy to grow in both pots and gardens in Manitoba, and generally mature quickly. Capsicum chinense include some of the hottest peppers in the world. Some famous examples include Habaneros, Scotch Bonnet, Fatalii, and Ghost peppers. Growing cultivars of C. chinense is not hard, but does require a long growing season and the hottest, sunniest location available. Capsicum frutescens is easily identified by the smaller, upward facing fruits that come by the hundreds! Popular examples include Thai and Chinese peppers, as well as many of the ornamental hot peppers that show up as seasonal displays in grocery stores (these types of chilies are technically edible, but usually come with an advisory warning not to eat them, which is due to the large amount of pesticides used in their production; if started from seed at home, this problem can be avoided). Finally, cultivars of Capsicum baccatum are gaining popularity due to the interesting fruits (many different shapes, such as on the Bishop’s Crown), as well as the excellent flavours that accompany the heat (Lemon Drop has a distinct citrus flavour).

The general rule of thumb when growing chilies is lots of sun, heat, and a composty soil.  Grow hot peppers in pots, which makes it much easier to shelter plants come fall. In fact, many types of chilies can be wintered indoors if desired, and remain productive for up to 5 years (this does require a very sunny location and vigilance for pests, which are easily controlled through regular rinsing with fresh water; C. annuumare the least well suited to indoor production)! The most common way to start chilies is from seed; these are typically started in late January through early March to achieve fruiting in mid to late summer.

Most peppers start out green, then mature through a range of colours typically finishing to red. The colourful fruits are a big draw when it comes to including not peppers in the garden or containerscape. Several pepper varieties will display multiple colours at one time (Bolivian Rainbow, Summer Fire, Sangria), and others have a long, showy period with a single colour of bright, showy fruits (think Habanero or Thai chilies). Many people ask whether or not the heat of chilies matures, as fruits ripen to red; indeed, the maximum heat will be found in ripe chilies - although very hot peppers are basically extreme even when unripe. The hottest part of chilies is the seeds and seed coats, with the flesh much more mild - which is why the inferno often takes some time to build-up when you are dared to chomp into a whole hot pepper.

The extent to which a pepper is piquant is commonly measured in Scoville units. Scoville ranking is named after Wilbur Scoville, an American pharmacist who developed a method based on incremental dilutions of hot pepper powder, taste-tasted until no heat can be detected by raters. Sweet Peppers have a Scoville rating of zero, while the hottest peppers rate up to two million units! Common hot peppers rate in the 1,500 - 30,000 Scolville range, a heat level that many can can enjoy without too much discomfort. By contrast, the hottest peppers in the world have an intensity level similar to police-grade pepper spray, and a very small taste is intolerable to most. The Trinidad Moruga Scorpion pepper was recently among the world’s hottest, at nearly double the Scoville rating of outgoing champion, the Indian Ghost (Bhut Jolokia) pepper. Incidentally, there are many types of Scorpion peppers, but only the true Moruga clocks in at a record breaking 2,000,000+ Scoville rating!

Hot peppers are of course associated with food, as in salsa, hot sauces, curries, spice blends and much more. From a gustatory perspective, chilies deliver similar benefits as salt (but offer a healthier alternative); that is, chilies enhance other flavours. They also help to preserve foods, which is one reason for the popularity of peppers in tropical regions. Hot peppers range in flavour as well as heat, with signature sauces and recipes relying on specific varieties (tabasco sauce or paprika spice are two familiar examples). From a nutritional perspective, peppers are very high in several vitamins and also antioxidants, appetite suppressing enzymes, and tend they tend to stimulate metabolism. There is a lot going on when you eat chilies.

Thinking of the heat, there are some effective antidotes to chili pepper burn. The first rule of thumb when calming chili sizzle is to avoid water; since the active ingredient capsicum is not soluble in water, drinking H2O just distributes the hot molecules across a wider surface area, intensifying any pain. By contrast, dairy products including milk, yogurt and ice cream are highly regarded when it comes to curing the pain of a chili over-dose, as are starchy items such as bread or rice. Sugary ingredients, such as chocolate or sweet sauces are often blended into recipes calling for chilies, as the sugar is very good at moderating the hot effect while bringing out the full flavour of the chili fruits. Interestingly, eating more chilies is a well known antidote to hot pepper pain; it is well established that tolerance builds up quickly to capsicum exposure, and eating more hot peppers can take away the pain!

© 1996 - 2015 Dave Hanson, Sage Garden

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