I feel qualified to write about a variety of garden subjects, including the cultivation of peppers. But when it comes to the tasting, I leave the hot peppers to someone with taste buds less tender than mine.
The National Garden Bureau proclaims 1993 the "Year of the Pepper." Discovered in Central and South America, they have been cultivated for thousands of years. Peppers were welcomed by the Europeans as a substitute for the expensive spices that came from the Orient, and the sharp taste reminded Columbus of the familiar black pepper from the East Indies. Columbus' newly found vegetables were not the pepper (Piper nigrem) of "salt and pepper shakers," but were Capsicum annuum, an entirely different genus.Peppers became an appealing alternative to the traditional spice. As early as 1493, writings found in Spain praise these plants that produced "pepper" hotter than that from the East Indies. Early colonists in the Americas brought seeds from Europe or the Caribbean, and George Washington grew a "cayan" pepper at Mt. Vernon.
Peppers are all a part of the solanaceae or nightshade family, which includes more than 2,000 species of ornamental, medicinal and poisonous plants. They are closely related to tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, petunias and tobacco. All peppers grown in North America are the genus Capsicum annuum. They are divided between sweet peppers and hot peppers.
Sweet peppers can include the familiar bell pepper, with its blocky shape. Although green was the only color available for many years, new varieties are yellow, orange, lavender, purple and chocolate. Bell peppers have a thick, crisp flesh and are eaten fresh or stuffed and baked. Paprika is a thin-walled pepper that is ground to prepare the condiment paprika. Pimentos are heart-shaped peppers that are almost round. They have thick flesh that turns red when fully mature. Sweet banana and sweet hungarian peppers are long, narrow peppers. They are usually picked when immature as either a light green or yellow pepper. They are excellent varieties for frying. Sweet cherry is a globe-shaped pepper about an inch and a half in diameter. It is harvested when mature green to deep red and is often used in processing or a pickled pepper.
Hot peppers are even more varied. Cayenne peppers are slim, tapered peppers ranging from 31/2 to 8 inches long. They are often dried. Red chili is a small, cone-shaped pepper 1 to 3 inches long with medium-thick flesh. These are usually dried and ground into chili powder. Green chili peppers are an Anaheim type used in chile rellenos. These fruits get 7- to 8-inches long and turn red at maturity, but are generally harvested green then roasted and peeled. Hungarian yellow wax is a mild, pungent pepper 5- to 6-inches long and is used for pickling or canning.
Jalepenos are the popular peppers used in Mexican entrees. They grow 21/2 to 31/2 inches long and have a thick pungent flesh. Harvested as immature or mature red peppers they are used for pickling or canning. More than 200,000 pounds of jalepeno pepper seed is planted in Mexico each year. Red cherry peppers are small peppers an inch and a half across and are used fresh or pickled.
Scorching varieties such as chili tepine, tabasco and Thai turn red when mature and zest up foods. Another popular Southwest type called habanero is said to be 50 times hotter than jalapeno peppers. I personally don't know how anyone can stand to eat something that hot, but I trust that those who do enjoy them.
Choose healthy plants with strong, dark-green foliage. Spindly stems, sparse foliage, yellow or off-color leaves indicate plants that are not thriving and won't transplant well to your garden.
Peppers love warm weather, so the intermittent cool spring has kept peppers in the garden from growing. Water peppers carefully because those stressed for water develop a leathery spot on the bottom of the fruit called blossom end rot. Nighttime temperatures below 60 or above 75 degrees Fahrenheit prevent peppers from setting blossoms. Daytime temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit inhibit fruit set.
Peppers can be harvested while mature or immature according to personal preference. Sweet peppers become sweeter as they mature, while hot peppers become hotter.
Slice them from the plant with a sharp knife or scissors. Heat in peppers is caused by the capsaicin oil in the membranes between the seed and fruit. This oil burns hands and fingers and is particularly painful if rubbed in eyes, nose or mouth, so wear plastic gloves.
The gel from aloe vera plants relieves much of the suffering, so if you grow these burning wonders, grow aloe vera plants for defense. Hot peppers are made more mild by excluding the seeds as you prepare the dishes.
Although I don't fully appreciate hot peppers, I recognize others appreciate these vegetables from backyard gardens. They are easy to grow, pick, prepare and store, so plant plenty of varieties to satisfy your needs for the upcoming year.
Larry A. Sagers is a horticulturist with the Utah State University Extension Service.