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The Master Gardener Journal


P L A N T   C L I N I C


Chilies
by Carole Zajac, Master Gardener

Chilies, or peppers, are the fruit or pods of plants from the genus Capsicum. The term, chili pepper, is redundant, although you see it written that way a lot; it means pepper pepper. These plants are native to the Americas, but are now used all over the world in many forms: fresh, dried, canned, pickled, and powdered.

The archaeological record shows wild peppers were eaten as far back as 7000 BC and were probably domesticated by 2500 BC.

The Spaniards are responsible for the name, "pepper," which they thought was related to black pepper, Piper nigrum, a spice they were seeking, among other exotic items, for the spice trading market. Chile plants went back to Europe with Columbus and within a century peppers were passed along the trade routes and eventually found their way into the cuisines of India, China, and Africa.

All peppers are in the same genus, from sweet bell peppers, cayenne, jalapeno, serrano, cherry, Fresno, Hungarian wax (Capsicum annuum), to Tabasco (Capsicum frutescens) and Habanero (Capsicum chinense), the hottest.

Chilies are part of the Solanaceae family (Nightshade) including tomatoes, eggplant, and potatoes. Just what are chilies? To horticulturists they are fruits; to botanists they are berries; to the produce industry they are vegetables; dried, they are a spice; but to us they can be anything we want them to be.

The compound that makes chilies hot is an alkaloid called capsaicin (cap-SAY-a-sin), which is not found in any other plant. Glands in the placenta of the pepper fruit produce this compound. It is not surprising that removing seeds and membranes inside the fruit reduces the heat, or leaving them in increases the heat.

Capsaicin is so powerful that it is used now in products that repel animals or even humans, instead of Mace. Chilies are ground up with garlic in a blender with water, strained, then sprayed on plants to make an effective non-toxic insecticide.

Did you ever wonder how chilies are rated on the hotness scale? In 1912 a pharmacologist named Wilbur Scoville came up with the Scoville Organoleptic test to calculate the temperature of peppers used in HEET, a muscle salve. Back then the temperature of a chili was subjectively measured by a majority of three tasters of a five-member panel, Today, computerized liquid chromatography measurement ranges from 0 Scoville units for bell peppers to 5,000 units for jalapenos to 200,000-300,000 units for Habaneros.

Scoville heat units:

Bell0
Anaheim255-1,400
New Mexico Chilies250-1,400
Ancho2,500-3,000
Poblano2,500-3,000
Jalpeno2,500-4,500
Hungarian2,500-6,000
Serrano7,000-25,000
Chile de Arbol15,000-30,000
Cayenno35,000
Chile pequin40,000
Tabasco30,000-50,000
Habanero200,000 -300,000
Scotch Bonnet200,000 -300,000


Antidotes for the heat in chilies are sugar, dairy products (sour cream, milk, yogurt) and starches (breads, tortillas, potatoes, or rice).

All peppers, mild and hot, grow well in our climate. Sometimes plants can be grown as perennials if you can protect them from frost damage in winter. However, each year the fruits get a little smaller. Peppers, okra and eggplant do just fine in 100 F plus temperatures. Hot pepper seeds, however, are very slow to germinate. They should be soaked for a few hours prior to sowing. Many seed companies are doing extraordinary things with colors, shapes, and flavors. Check out Burpee Seed Company, Park Seed Company, Johnnyıs, and Seeds of Change for some interesting new varieties of both sweet and hot peppers.

Following is a list of chilies found in our area. The numbers following them are a ten-point scale (0 = mild; 10 = very hot) developed by Mark Miller, chef and author of THE GREAT CHILE BOOK.

Fresh:
Anaheim2-3
Poblano3
Jalapeno5.5
Korean6-7
Serrano7
Thai7-8
Cayenne8
Habanero10
Scotch Bonnet10


Dried:
New Mexico (chili Colorado)2-4
Ancho (dried Poblano)3-5
Pasilla (chili negro)3-5
Chipotle (dried smoked jalapeno)5-6
de Arbol7.5
Cayenne8
Thai8
Habanero10
Scotch Bonnet10


Enjoy the chilies of your choice!!

Photo by Candice Sherrill.


Maricopa County Master Gardener Volunteer Information
Last Updated November 21, 2004
Author: Lucy K. Bradley, Extension Agent Urban Horticulture, University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, Maricopa County
© 1997 The University of Arizona, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Cooperative Extension in Maricopa County
Comments to Maricopa-hort@ag.arizona.edu 4341 E. Broadway Road, Phoenix, AZ 85040,
Voice: (602) 470-8086 ext. 301, Fax (602) 470-8092