There will always be several jalapeno plants, but each year I enjoy adding new-to-me varieties. I’ve been known to pick a pepper plant just so I could grow enough chiles to prepare a single recipe. ‘Holy Mole’!
I’m drawn to peppers because they’re versatile in the kitchen and grow in so many different sizes, shapes and colors. There are baby bell peppers, slender green Thai chiles, long red paprika peppers and even black edible ornamentals.
Then, of course, there’s the thrill of the unknown when taking that first tantalizing bite.
Has a pepper ever made you cry or cause steam to vent from your ears? That painful burning sensation is nature’s way of letting you know you’ve had too much capsaicin. Capsaicin is the flavorless, tasteless alkaloid compound that stimulates the pain receptors in your mouth.
Thanks to Wilbur Scoville, an American pharmacologist, there’s a way to tell the relative heat of chile peppers before chowing down. In 1912 he developed the Scoville Organoleptic test to measure the amount of capsaicin in peppers. Pure capsaicin registers between 15,000,000 and 16,000,000 heat units on the Scoville scale; bell peppers have 0.
Because capsaicin is manufactured in the pepper’s ribs, you can put out some of the fire by removing the pepper’s seeds and veins before eating.
How to Grow Peppers
Peppers are one of the easiest plants to grow, even for beginning gardeners. In most areas, garden centers start stocking pepper transplants in spring. Choose healthy-looking plants and give them plenty of room to grow in the garden. If planting in containers, one plant per 12-inch container works well.
When starting plants indoors from seed, allow at least 8 weeks for seeds to sprout and become garden ready. Then take them outside to get acclimated before planting in the vegetable bed or container garden.
Peppers grow best in full sun and a rich, well-drained soil. Mulch around the base of the plants, keep soil moist and fertilize about every 4-6 weeks. Peppers are ready to eat whenever they reach their preferred size, although if left on the plant they’ll ripen to brilliant—and delicious—little gems.
No matter where your taste buds fall on the Scoville scale, there’s a pepper for you, whether you buy transplants or start from seeds. Here are 10 varieties from mild to wild to help you get started:
‘Red Mini Bell’. A miniature sweet bell peppers that has no heat, but plenty of color to light up the garden.
‘Patio Red’ Marconi. This sweet pepper grows on compact plants and ripens to a bright crimson.
‘Tequila Sunrise’. The name perfectly describes the striking color of these sweet peppers with a slightly sexy shape.
‘Nu Mex Heritage’ and ‘Joe E. Parker’. The familiar long, green peppers are usually roasted for savory southwestern dishes.
‘Cayenne’. Grow this pepper and get two plants in one—it’s an attractive ornamental and it produces flavorful peppers, too.
‘Hungarian Paprika’. A sweet, spicy pepper that’s meant to dry and grind into a splendid seasoning.
‘Tabasco.’ The small green hot peppers that turn red and are used for the famous Tabasco pepper sauce.
‘Mariachi’. An All-America Selections winner in 2006, ‘Mariachi’ is a hot pepper that ripens beautifully from a creamy white to vivid red.
‘Kung Pao’. A long, Asian pepper variety that turns red to create Kung Pao recipes.
‘Fresno’. Tasty, hot fruits grow pointy-end up on medium size plants and ripen from green to orange to fire-engine red.
‘Bhut Jolokia’. With a Scoville rating of 855,000, the Ghost pepper is the hottest commercially cultivated chile. Plant and eat at your own risk.
A great resource for the chile pepper lover is the Chile Pepper Institute in Las Cruces, New Mexico.