Growing your own hot peppers in the home garden

Story by Darren Sheriff

Those of you that know me may think I am a hot head! No, not THAT kind! I LOVE hot peppers, also known as chile peppers. And the Carolinas are a great place to grow some heat.

Chile peppers, or hot peppers, have been a part of the human diet since at least 7500 B.C. There is archaeological evidence in southwestern Ecuador that show that chile peppers were domesticated more than 6,000 years ago, and were one of the first self-pollinating cultivated crops in the Americas. 

Yellow habaneros are one of many peppers found in seed catalogs. They have a hint of nice smoky flavor, but can pack a pretty decent heat punch.

Christopher Columbus called them “peppers” because they had a bite similar to white and black pepper, incidentally there is no botanical relationship between the two. Hot peppers are in the genus Capsicum and the black and white pepper is Piper nigrum

There are a few common species of peppers, those being: Capsicum annuum, which includes many common varieties such as bell peppers, wax, cayenne, jalapeños, and the chiltepin

Even though there are only a few species in the Capsicum genus, there are many cultivars and hybrids. However, peppers are commonly broken down into three categories: bell peppers, sweet peppers, and hot peppers. I like the hot peppers and the hotter the better.

The Scoville scale is used to rank the heat of peppers in Scoville Heat Units (SHU). Chile peppers range in heat from 0 (sweet bell peppers) to the ‘Trindad Moruga Scorpion’ at more than 2,000,000 (yes, 2 million). Jalapenos rate 0-50,000, ‘Tabasco’ rates 30,000-70,000, ‘Bhut Jolokia’ (ghost peppers) rate 1,000,000+. There is a new kid on the block, created in Rock Hill, S.C., and it is called the Carolina Reaper (‘HP22B’). Scoville Units on this thing have been reported as upwards of 2 million.

Before planting chile peppers, you need a location in full sun; they love LOTS of sun and heat. The plants will grow to about 3 feet tall and wide. They like lots of water, but beware of overwatering because they are susceptible to root rot. If you can grow them in containers, they will reward you with more peppers than you can imagine. The combination of the warmer soil and less water makes for a wicked harvest. Peppers take roughly 70-90 days to mature from seed and during this time they like to be kept as warm as possible – 80 F is where they like it, but they can and will handle lower temperatures, they just won’t do as well. The seeds should be planted rather shallowly so they can soak up the heat of the sun. 

Peppers are ready to be picked as soon as they are big enough or you can leave them until they gradually change color and flavor. Many will turn red, yellow, orange, black, and all shades between. ‘Habanero’ peppers are even available in brown or white. 
One thing that to remember when handling these little packets of fire is that the oils will get on your hands, no matter how careful you are. You can wear gloves, but I discovered a little secret that works for me if my hands are burning. My wife uses makeup-remover wipes and I’ve found that if I rub them all over my hands, it seems to help cool the burning. Give it a try sometime. 

Harvesting your peppers will give you many more. The plant will continue to reproduce until frost kills it. Not a bad problem to have as far as I’m concerned.

This harvest is from a 2-foot-tall plant and it had many buds and small fruit still on it. The plant eventually doubled in size and quadrupled its output.

For the most part, the process of growing any type of hot peppers is about the same. I will touch on a few of the more common ones, starting at the bottom of the heat chart. ‘Jalapeno’ peppers are named after the city of Xalapa, Veracruz. The ‘Jalapeno’ is a small to medium-sized chile pepper. They grow, on average, 2-4 inches and are green when ripe, but will turn red the longer they’re on the vine. The more common variety is green, although red cultivars are just as tasty and a bit sweeter. 

Next up the heat scale is the ‘Habanero’, which was previously thought to have originated in Cuba, named after the Cuban city of La Habana, known in the U.S. as Havana. We now know that ‘Habanero’ peppers grow mainly on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, where it truly originated. Once the Spanish had discovered it, they spread it far and wide around the world, so much so that taxonomists in the 18th century thought it originated in China and therefore named it Capsicum chinense, the “Chinese pepper.” There are many habanero cultivars, including ‘Orange Habanero’, ‘Caribbean Red’, ‘Golden Habanero’, ‘Scotch Bonnet’, ‘Peach Habanero’, ‘Yucatan White’, ‘Peruvian White’, and ‘Jamaican Chocolate’, just to name a few. Measuring in between 100,000-600,000 these peppers are getting up there in heat. 

‘Habanero’ peppers: These spicy little guys can pack a huge punch when it comes to heat. They were considered the hottest pepper in 1999, but have since been displaced by other peppers. Even so, ‘Habanero’ remains a popular choice for hot sauces around the world!

Then, we come to the baddest, hottest, meanest, peppers in the world: Scoville ratings differ a bit, but there’s no denying these peppers are death-defyingly hot.  The ‘Carolina Reaper’ is definitely an evil looking pepper – a gnarled, lumpy pod with what looks like a wasp’s stinger. The color is a beautiful “danger” red, which should warn those that are a little smarter than most that this could have a bad ending if consumed. Created in Rock Hill, S.C., for now, until somebody knocks it off the podium, it holds the Guinness record for hottest pepper in the world with a Scoville rating of 1,569,300! For comparison, the previous record holder was the Trinidad Scorpian ‘Butch T’ at 1,463,700 SHU. But, according to some, there will soon be a new title holder: ‘Dragon’s Breath’ reportedly registers a staggering 2.48 million SHU. It may be verified by Guinness, but there is a grave warning: According to Live Science, consuming a ‘Dragon’s Breath’ pepper can cause the body’s immune system to go into overdrive and may even lead to anaphylactic shock, which can be lethal if not immediately treated.

Growing and eating chile peppers – whether hot or mild – can be fun and delicious, as long as you use a bit of common sense.

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