Peppers have been part of the cooking of the Middle East, the Mediterranean, North Africa and Asia for so long that many believe the plants are native to those areas. However, all pepper species – including capsicums, also known as sweet or bell peppers, and chillies – originated in Central and South America. Chillies were domesticated in Mexico in about 4000 BCE. By the time that Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas, chillies had been dispersed northwards to what is now Texas and south to Argentina. Columbus took them back to Spain, from where they spread across Europe and beyond.
Peppers add an array of flavours to food apart from their tantalising heat. These flavours can range from raisin and chocolate to smoky and fruity. Peppers are also very high in antioxidants and vitamins A and C. (Vitamin C was first discovered and extracted from a plant belonging to the genus, Capsicum.) Peppers have natural anticoagulant properties, and have been shown to lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels. No wonder Columbus noted in his journal in 1493 that the Indians all ate ‘aji, which is their pepper and nobody partakes without it, because they consider it so healthful’.
The heat in peppers comes from a substance called capsaicin, and the amount of capsaicin and heat present in a variety depends on its genetic makeup. Capsaicin is used in a number of therapeutic products for treating arthritic pain and sore muscles. There are various scales and techniques for measuring the heat in peppers. The best known is the Scoville heat scale, which measures units of heat. Capsicums measure zero, while the extremely hot Habanero measures 200,000–300,000 units. Tabasco, which is very hot to most palates, is a mere 30,000–50,000 units. The current world record is held by the Bhut Jolokia chilli from Assam at a dangerous 1 million units. A useful relative heat scale also rates peppers from 0 to 10. It places the Ancho on 4, Jalapeño on 7, Cayenne on 8, Scotch Bonnet on 9 and Habanero on 10. The Assam variety would measure 50. Today, there are chilli festivals, chilli collectors, chilli websites and chilli-eating challenges in many parts of the world. They are also a vital part of many regional dishes.
Planning the crop
Pepper plants of all kinds require a sunny position, although in hot tropical areas they are best grown under a very light shadecloth. They also need a well drained, well-composted soil that is preferably neutral to slightly acidic. Most species of pepper originated in areas that have long hot summers. The sole exception is the rocoto chilli (C. pubescens), which first grew in the Andean highlands and is a perennial ideally suited to mild-winter areas.
After centuries of plant selection around the world, there are hundreds of varieties of C. annuum available today and at least some varieties to suit every garden. Many varieties of pepper adapt well to growing in pots and look very attractive. Except for rocoto chillies, peppers are very cold-sensitive and should not be planted out until at least two weeks after the last frost date for your area, and when the soil temperature has reached 18°C. In cool-climate districts you can advance the planting season by placing heat-absorbing black plastic over the ground for at least two weeks before planting out the seedlings. Cloches can also be used to protect the crop in cool regions. Alternatively, plants can be grown in a glasshouse.
How many to grow– The smaller the pepper, the more prolific the plant is likely to be. Chillies have an amazing range of fragrance, flavour, colour and shape, and many varieties are prized for use in regional cooking. Aficionados often grow an array of varieties for cooking. Large fruited capsicum varieties usually yield about six fruits per plant.
In cool areas sow pepper seeds from early spring in seed raising flats under protection. In warm-climate areas, plant seeds after the last frost date. Germination usually takes three to four weeks. Plant out the seedlings in their final position at least two weeks after the last frost date for your area. Be sure to harden them off first with progressive exposure to sunlight. Pepper seedlings are susceptible to damping off, a fungal disease that will spread rapidly through a batch of seedlings. To minimise the risk of this, seeds must be sown in a sterilised seed raising mix. You can purchase this, although it is relatively easy to make your own supply. Combine two parts of coarse clean river sand and one part of sieved compost. Place the mix in a heavy, clear plastic bag and seal it. To sterilise, flatten the bag and put it in a very cool oven (about 50°C) for half an hour. Alternatively, spread the bag flat in the sun for two hours. If the seed raising bag has been used before, wash it well and soak in diluted household bleach before filling with mix. Most varieties of C. annuum can be spaced 30 cm apart. Mulch plants well with organic material once the soil is fully warmed, and water regularly.
Pests and diseases
As well as damping off, peppers are prone to tobacco and other mosaic viruses. To minimise the chances of an outbreak, smokers should always wash their hands before working with pepper plants. Anthracnose is another disease to affect peppers. Be sure to practise strict crop rotation to help control this; do not grow plants from the Solanaceae family, which includes all peppers, tomatoes, tomatillos and eggplants, in the same site for four years. Blossom end rot can damage the tips of fruits, while young plants can be attacked by cutworm.
Harvesting and storing
Harvest peppers in late summer to autumn at any stage from green to fully coloured. Capsicums are sweeter if left to ripen on the vine, whereas chillies are hotter. Cut off the fruits with a small piece of stem attached. Take care when handling homegrown chillies as they can be very and unpredictably hot. When harvesting them and particularly when cutting and deseeding them, it is advisable to wear a pair of protective gloves. A chilli’s capsaicin is concentrated mainly in the seeds and the white membranous septae. Handling these can cause burning to fingertips. After deseeding a few hot fruits, your fingertips may lose sensation for two days. Always wash your hands very thoroughly after working with chillies. Touching the face or eyes without this precaution is a painful experience. Capsaicin is not water-soluble, so cold water, beer or iced tea will provide only fleeting relief after eating a hellfire chilli. Casein – found in milk, yoghurt and yoghurt-based drinks – is the most effective means of relieving the heat. Capsicums will keep for one week in the refrigerator, chillies for two.