I began my interest in pepper plants when my doctor told me spicy food might hurt my stomach. So naturally, I became fixated on spicy foods. There’s much more than meets the (bird’s) eye in the pepper world. Most people are familiar with peppers commonly sold in grocery stores such as: bells, jalapenos, cayennes or serranos. These four types are actually all the same species, but there are four commonly grown species. It is important to grow peppers from seed catalogs if you are looking to get wider ranges of colors, flavors, and uses from your garden peppers.
The four most commonly grown species of peppers are all in the genus Capsicum, these are: C. annuum, C. baccatum, C. chinense, and C. frutescens. C. annuum is the most common species you will find in a store and tends to have lower heat levels. C. baccatum is a species native to South America, is commonly grown in Peru and is used as a spice in Peruvian cuisine. They are also very prolific and tend to be a bit hotter than a lot of C. annuum varieties. C. chinense is the hottest pepper species in the world since before the 90’s. The most commonly used pepper from this species would be habaneros; other notable peppers are the Ghost pepper and current world record holder, the Carolina Reaper. The last common species is C. frutescens, which is most similar to C. chinense. The Ghost pepper is actually a hybrid of C. chinense and C. frutenscens.
Now that we’ve gone over the basics of the common species, let’s talk about one of my favorite parts: HEAT! The heat of peppers is measured in “Scoville Heat Units” abbreviated “SHU”. Jalapenos come in at around 8,000 SHU. Habaneros are in the range of 100,000 to 300,000 SHU, and the world record holding Carolina Reaper comes in at an astounding range of 1,600,000 to 2,200,000 SHU. Personally, I don’t grow anything hotter than a habanero for anything other than novelty. After 1,000,000 SHU, it typically only takes one pepper to add spice to a large pot of soup, stew or chili. The 7 pot pepper is named specifically for its ability to add spice. It is said to be hot enough to spice up 7 pots of chili from just one pepper. I grew these last year and can attest to the intense heat after (foolishly) eating half of one.
Aside from growing peppers for ludicrous amounts of heat, there are ornamental varieties which come in different shapes and colors and peppers which are significant in cultural dishes. Peppers come in many colors including: red, yellow, purple, cream, orange, and brown; many shades of colors in between are also available. Aside from the attractive pods, the leaves can be purple, almost a solid black, or variegated. Other reasons to grow distinct varieties would be for making more authentic food from another culture. In Jamaica, scotch bonnet peppers are used for making jerk sauce and are key to the heat and flavor of that cuisine. As I mentioned earlier, C. baccatum peppers are commonly used as spices in Peruvian dishes. I still have family members begging me to grow more of that species for the bit of heat and the unique flavor it adds – they put it in everything!
Peppers can add a lot of heat, flavor, and ornamental value to your yard and your kitchen. If you typically only grow common varieties of peppers, maybe look through a catalog to find a variety to (literally) spice up your meals. If you are really into the peppers you grow, you can take them inside for the winter and get an even better harvest the following year. People often do not realize pepper plants are actually perennial, and they will produce even better when they are a little older. I hope I have inspired you to give a second thought to the pepper plants you put out in the garden. You will not regret changing it up.
Cody Hoff, Lead Horticulturist
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