Herb of the Year: Hot Pepper

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Did you know that the pepper is the 2016 herb of the year? Every year, the International Herb Association names one “herb of the year”… and their choice for 2016 is the pepper.

A Long History

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Thai pepper

The hot pepper or chili pepper (Capsicum spp.) Is native to South and Central America, including the Caribbean. We know it has been harvested from the wild for at least 9000 years and cultivated for at least 5000 years.

Diego Alvarez Chanca, a doctor who accompanied Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to America, is credited with introducing peppers to Europe. He called it “chilli” (based on the Nahuatl word chile), but it came to be called pimiento in Spain because of its pungent taste, similar to that of black pepper, Piper nigra (pimienta in Spanish). So pimiento for hot peppers, pimienta for black pepper: two different words for two different plants. It makes sense.

The English, however, confused the two completely, calling both pepper, and to this day, you often need to add an adjective to get the meaning across: chili pepper or hot pepper are often used to distinguish the New World spice from pepper or black pepper, the condiment from the Old World found in pepper shakers.

At first hot pepper was only grown as a curiosity in Europe… but its use as a spice quickly spread around the world when the Portuguese brought it to India early in the 16th century. It soon became an essential element of local cuisine and remains so to this day. Then Arab spice traders adopted it and spread it throughout their bartering zone. It was the Turks who reintroduced hot peppers into Europe as a spice in 1545, notably in Hungary, where it was given the name paprika.

Peppers: Hot or Sweet?

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Bell peppers: a hot pepper without the bite.

Botanically, there is no difference between hot peppers and sweet peppers (bell peppers): both are derived from species of Capsicum, plants in the Solanaceae or tomato family. All sweet peppers are selections of C. annuum, while chili peppers are a mixed bag: most come from C. annuum, but others are derived from C. frutescens, C. chinense (the source of the hottest peppers), C. pubescens and C. baccatum. The sweet pepper is however a more modern development. It appeared in Europe in the late 18th century, the result of a recessive mutation that gave a pepper without the usual “hot” taste.

It’s capsaicin, an irritant alkaloid, that gives the chili peppers their pungency. The more capsaicin one contains, the hotter it will taste. So-called hot peppers (chili, tobasco, paprika, cayenne pepper, etc.) contain capsaicin in different degrees and are used as condiments. Sweet peppers, of which the bell pepper (so-called because of its shape) is the best known, contain little to no capsaicin and therefore have a sweet taste. They’re used as vegetables.

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There is a scale to help determine the intensity of peppers: Scoville heat units, developed by pharmacist Wilbur Scoville in 1912. The hotter the pepper, the greater then number of Scoville units it will be attributed. So while the average bell pepper contains 0 units and banana peppers, with 1,000 to 5,000 units, are considered mild, habanero peppers (C. chinense), the hottest commonly grown type, can rate from 100,000 to 300,000 units, sometimes even more! They can be so hot they’ll burn your fingers when you harvest them.

Extreme Heat

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‘Carolina Reaper’

Some peppers are naturally more pungent than others. Pepper aficionados consider peppers that would totally fry my taste buds, like jalapeños, to be barely hot, something you would give to a schoolchild. The hottest pepper today (and indeed figuring in the Guinness Book of World Records) is ‘Carolina Reaper’, a habanero type (C. chinense) which has been rated at 2.2 million Scoville units!

Countries with hot climates have a reputation for having the hottest peppers and there is a reason for that. A pepper’s heat is only partly controlled by genetics; environment also plays a role. Thus, peppers grown at hot temperatures – they’ll easily take up to 95˚F (35˚C) and keep producing, that is, as long as they have been acclimated to hot conditions – tend to be the hottest, especially if they have been subjected to drought stress and fairly poor soil.

Peppers grown in cooler climates, that are well-watered and enjoy a nitrogen-rich soil, won’t be as hot, at least not according to hot pepper connoisseurs! However, Northern gardeners can improve the pungency of their peppers by growing them in containers – preferably dark colored containers – to maximize the heat they receive. In cold climates, growing in chili peppers in the garden greatly reduces their intensity due to cool soils… but you can compensate by covering the soil with black plastic mulch. Also, avoid nitrogen-rich fertilizers and let the soil dry out slightly before watering again.

Of course, you’d need to be a chili enthusiast to notice the difference. People like myself who turn bright red and scream for an ambulance after biting into even fairly innocuous peppers like jalapeños will find even Arctic-grown habaneros unbearably hot!

So Many Varieties!

20160612FArrangement_of_jalapeño,_banana,_cayenne,_chili,_and_habanero_peppers.jpgWhile the chili pepper has been adopted as a condiment almost everywhere in the world, each region has its own selections. Hundreds of local varieties have been created in Africa, Asia, South America, Mexico, the Caribbean, etc.

Peppers can be rounded, tapered or pointed, as big as an apple or banana or as small as a blueberry, and brown, purple, red, orange, ivory or yellow when ripe. The plants can reach over 10 feet (3 m) high… or never grow any more than 8 inches (20 cm) tall. Even the leaves are variable. Though most are green, there are varieties with purple, bicolor or tricolor leaves. Some peppers are also grown as ornamentals for their beautiful foliage and/or stunning fruit. Christmas pepper, sold as a houseplant during the holiday season, is just one example of an ornamental pepper.

Most seed catalogs offer hot peppers. While some offer only two or three varieties, others have more. The Peppergal claims to have the largest selection in the world, with over 100 varieties! PepperNorth is an excellent source of the hottest peppers such as ‘Carolina Reaper’.

Grow Them Like Tomatoes

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You may want to grow hot peppers in containers, at least in cool summer areas.

Growing peppers is essentially identical to growing tomatoes, which are, after all, close relatives. Sow them indoors about 8 weeks before the last frost date, placing the containers in a sunny, warm place. Gradually acclimate the plants to outdoor conditions when night temperatures exceed 15˚C. As mentioned, you can plant them in the garden, but for very hot peppers, it’s better to grow them in containers, unless you live in an area with long, hot summers. Finally, you’ll need a sunny location, preferably protected from the wind.

During the summer, water as needed. For the hottest peppers, don’t hesitate to let them dry out a bit between waterings, but not to the point where the whole plant wilts.

The fruits can be harvested green (traditionally the case with fleshier peppers such as jalapeños) or at maturity: generally, green peppers are less pungent than ripe ones. Wear latex gloves when harvesting the hottest peppers to avoid burning your fingers and, above all, avoid touching your mouth, nose or eyes.

Tip for the Wimpy

If chili you just bit into is too intense for your taste, drink milk or consume a dairy product. Capsaicin is an oil-based product that won’t dissolve in water, so drinking water won’t help you. Milk, on the other hand, contains casein, a compound that binds with capsaicin and carries it away.

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