How to Grow Chili Peppers
Chili Pepper Origins
The chili pepper has been cultivated for thousands of years in the Americas. Archeological scholars believe it was first cultivated/domesticated in Central America more than 6,000 years ago.
Christopher Columbus was the first non-native person to encounter these plants during his journeys to the Caribbean and named them "peppers" because of the similarity of flavors and spiciness to the common black and white peppercorn plant (piper species).
Chili peppers were a great cooking substitute for the black and white peppercorns, which were extremely expensive—only the "elite" had access to them (and some towns even used the black and white peppercorns as currency!).
The chili pepper eventually made its way to Asia (thanks to heavy trading by the Portuguese).
In modern times, India has been the leader when it comes to consumption and cultivation of chili pepper plants, but these peppers remain very popular throughout the world and are commonly grown in the home vegetable garden.
Chili Pepper Care
Chili peppers are one of the easiest plants to grow in the summer vegetable garden. They are a part of the nightshade family of plants, which include tomatoes, sweet bell peppers, potatoes, tomatillos and husk/ground cherries.
Their requirements are very similar to tomatoes and bell peppers. They require at least six hours of sun to perform their best and grow well in temps above 65°F.
Plant your chilies outside in the garden after your last estimated frost date for your region. They require moderate moisture and perform well in hot, humid weather. It has been my experience that they perform better than regular bell peppers in really hot and humid weather.
Do you grow hot peppers in your garden?
How to Grow Chili Peppers From Seed
If you don't want to purchase seedlings from your garden supply store or nursery, chili peppers are easy to grow from seed.
- Plant seeds in seed starting mix six weeks before your last frost date.
- Keep soil moist and in an area that is at least 65°F for good germination.
- Seedlings usually emerge in about two weeks.
- Keep them in a sunny window or supplement their light with a grow light until temps outside are above 50°F during the day.
- Once temps outside are above 50°F, slowly start putting them outside—first in a sheltered spot, then in a few weeks in a full sunspot during the day to start "hardening them off."
- At night, bring the seedlings back in the house.
- Plant them out in the garden permanently after your last frost date and when temps at night don't dip below 50 or 60°F.
What Are Scoville Heat Units?
Scoville Heat Units (SHU for short) is a scale of measurement to determine how hot/spicy a chili pepper is. The unit starts at zero for no heat (i.e. bell peppers) and the hottest unit is set at 2.2 million units. (The Carolina Reaper is now considered the hottest pepper at 2.2M SHU, taking the title away from the Ghost Pepper, which has a SHU of 1.6M.)
Common Chili Varieties' Scoville Heat Units
2,500 to 8,000
5,000 to 30,000
1,000 to 2,000
33,000 to 50,000
Hungarian Hot Wax
5,000 to 10,000
100,000 to 350,000
6,000 to 23,000
Ghost Pepper (Bhut Jolokia)
Culinary Uses for Chili Peppers
High in vitamin C, chili peppers are used in a wide-range of dishes.
Some of the most popular applications are:
- Salsa—used raw and blended with tomatoes, onions, garlic, cilantro and spices.
- Cooked into sauces.
- Dried and ground into a powder for seasoning.
- Fresh ancho peppers are stuffed, battered, and fried for the popular dish, chile relleno.
Did You Know?
The ancient Mayans used dried chili peppers blended with cocoa powder added to water as a beverage. This is the first instance we know of chocolate used as a beverage (i.e. hot chocolate).
The active ingredient is capsaicin, which is what gives chili peppers their heat. Modern research of this extract has led to its discovery as an effective and non-toxic pain reliever. Common ailments capsaicin helps reduce or eliminate pain from include:
- skin pain that is common with the shingles virus
Capsaicin is still being tested as a possible pain-relieving treatment for some cancers as well.
A Great Addition to Any Garden
Chili Peppers are a great addition to any vegetable garden. If you do a lot of cooking like I do, they are an interesting and welcome ingredient in many dishes. My advice is to experiment with different types and SHUs to see which you enjoy the best. Happy gardening!
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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2014 Lisa Roppolo