Chili Peppers by PJ LaRue Smith
Chiles/peppers are native to South America, and are grown as annuals where freezing occurs. Contrary to popular belief, chiles are not related to black pepper; but are a part of the large nightshade family, which also includes tomato, potato and eggplant.
Peppers, unlike most vegetables, are not classified by folks as simply “like or dislike” by way of preference – there will be some sort of “quantifier” injected into the preference. Some folks prefer mild flavored peppers with no heat (bell, banana), some like a little heat (poblano, anaheim), others prefer a little more spice (jalapeno, serrano) and then there are the serious heat lovers (habanero).
Capsaicin, the same ingredient that is used in pepper sprays, is the chemical responsible for the heat in peppers. Transfer of capsaicin to eyes, nose, mouth or other sensitive areas can be avoided by wearing gloves whenever working with the plants, harvesting the pods, or preparing the peppers themselves.
The “heat range” of a pepper is measured in multiples of 100 Scoville Units – the higher the number, the hotter the pepper. Plant tags on peppers typically list the standard Scoville Unit range for that variety, so be sure to check this information when purchasing a variety you are not familiar with.
Why a heat “range” and not a set number to denote a pepper’s heat? One might expect the intensity to be affected by water content as is true for garden crops such as melons. For peppers, however, it is temperature that is central to it’s heat level. In fact, temperature is key to every facet of a pepper plant’s growth – from germination, to fruit set/maturation, heat level, and longevity. Successfully growing peppers requires the gardener’s understanding of how temperature regulates growth and production in this flavorful plant.
Germination, for example, can be slow and irregular even under the best of conditions. Chile seeds need warmth, oxygen, and moisture to germinate. Higher germination rates occur between 70 and 80 degrees F, while faster germination occurs between 90 and 100 degrees F. Start seeds indoors 8 – 10 weeks before the last expected frost. Before transplanting into the garden, harden the seedlings off by exposing them to outdoor temperatures (non-freezing) for increasing periods of time each day. Transplant when daytime temperatures average 70 degrees F and night temps around 55 degrees.
The key to flower set is nighttime temperature, which ideally should be between 65 and 80 degrees. Fruit set is enhanced by increased sunlight. However, if night temperatures are above 86 degrees F, fruit will not set. Some varieties, habanero-types for example, may take 130 days or more to completely mature..
Temperature, as mentioned earlier, also affects the intensity of a pepper’s heat – the hotter the temperature at maturation, the hotter the pepper. New Mexican pods, for example, ripening at temperatures between 86 and 95 degrees F will have twice as many capsaicinoids as pods ripening between 59 and 72 degrees F.
Like other garden plants, peppers will benefit from the addition of compost. A pH of 6.5 is preferred, however, if other requirements are met, a slightly higher pH can be tolerated. Watering during dry spells, at least two inches a week, is especially important after fruit set.
Pepper plants have few pest problems, produce right up until frost, and are beautiful garden specimens with the variety of color they provide as the peppers mature. Hot, spicy, or mild – these are fun plants to grow!
If you would like to learn more about growing peppers, come to the “Salsa Fest 2011!” on October 8th at the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Office/Heritage Garden from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. Besides the educational portion – micro-salsa garden, peppers, preparing/drying herbs, salsa/relish canning, this event will feature a salsa contest (fresh/canned), vendor tables, roasted chiles, food, door prizes, and, of course, be lots of fun! For more information, contact the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension office at 903-455-9885.