Posted February 21, 2006 by Nick Lindauer in Peppers

Chilly, Chile, or Chili?

By JOE TEMPLE, Master Gardener

When the spring planting season gets here you are going to hear more and more about the hot peppers of the garden world. Whether you prefer [tag]chile[/tag] or chili, the spelling doesn’t make that much difference. The South American country is Chile. When the pepper is used as an ingredient in an ethnic dish, such as chili con carne, it is spelled with an “i.”

Either way, the National Garden Bureau is calling 2006 the Year of the Chile Pepper.

There is a mystique – mostly masculine — about who can eat the hottest peppers without dire consequences. We have one grandson in that group who likes to challenge all comers to the consumption of the “hot” ones. Some experts speculate chile pepper heat, (and the subsequent oral pain) stimulates the production of endorphins in the brain, conferring a sense of well being in the individual.

There is no macho connotation to eating carrots or tomatoes, no matter what color or size. Not many vegetables have a magazine and festivals solely devoted to them. Whether a small cayenne or a large, all peppers, whether sweet bells or scorching chiles, originated in Central and South America. Archaeological evidence in Mexico suggests the use of peppers as far back at 7000 B.C. By 2,500 B.C they were cultivating chile peppers.

Records dating to colonial days show that both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew a cayenne-type pepper at their respective residences at Mount Vernon and Monticello. Peppers were hard to find outside New Orleans and the Southwest until the middle of the 20th century.

One way to classify chile peppers is based on the heat they can generate when eaten.

In 1912, pharmacist Wilbur Scoville invented a test to measure the hotness of peppers by diluting the pepper until the heat was just perceptible on the tongue. The Scoville rating is measured in multiples of 100. A sweet bell pepper can have a rating of 0; hot peppers can range as high as 60,000 Scoville units.

Hungarian Wax and Poblano can range from 1,000 to 5,000 units, while Habanero can range up to the 60,000 figure.

Peppers are best started from seed indoors in late winter and transplanted into the garden after soil and air have warmed in the spring. The plants cannot tolerate frost and do not grow well in cold, wet soil.

When night temperatures are below 50-55 degrees F. the plants grow slowly, leaves may turn yellow, and the flowers drop off. Any procedure to warm the soil will hasten maturity.

Space the plants 18 to 24 inches apart in the row. Use a starter fertilizer when transplanting, usually one high in phosphorus. After the first flush of peppers has set, add additional supplemental fertilizer.

When summer daytime temperatures are above 90 degrees F. or nighttime temperatures drop below 60 degrees F., blossoms will drop, resulting in little or no fruit set. Sometimes little or no pollination will take place, in which case it may help to hand pollinate blossoms using a cotton swab.

Chile peppers are usually quite healthy. Occasionally there will be a pest problem.

Tiny green aphids may congregate on tips of branches. They suck sap out of the plant for their nourishment, causing leaf deformities and a general weakening of the structure. They can also spread deadly viruses. A strong spray of water from the garden hose can knock many of them off. Lady beetles, the “good guys” of the garden world, feed on aphids by the hundreds. Caterpillars, including hornworms, corn earworms, and corn borers may damage fruit and leaves.

For the caterpillar pests, consider using carbaryl, sold as Sevin, to assist in control.

A word of caution is in order to the first-time handlers of chile-type peppers.

The plant produces an alkaloid compound called [tag]capsaicin[/tag] (cap-say-a-sin). It is what produces a pleasure-pain response in the mouth, but it burns skin and eyes. Always wear disposable latex gloves when working with these types of peppers to protect the hands. Never touch your face, mouth, eyes, or nasal passages. We would add, to use caution when pausing from chile pepper duties to attend to bathroom chores, also. Carelessness could cause short-term dire consequences.

If you accidentally get pepper juice in the eyes, wash immediately with clean cool water, continuing it until relief is felt. From excessive eating of hot peppers try consuming yogurt, ice cream, or milk.

Some information for this article came from National Garden Bureau, celebrating 2006 as The Year of the [tag]Chile Pepper[/tag].

Nick Lindauer

The Original Hot Sauce Blog