for Wilbur L. Scoville! If you like the
pungency of hot peppers, you know Wilbur
L. Scoville. Don’t know him? Maybe it’s
time you got acquainted.
peppers have been part of the diet in
the Americas for about 8000 years. In
that time the plant has migrated from
its Amazon origins to all parts of the
world where a bit of ‘heat’ gives
piquancy to the food. Carried north by
birds whose digestive systems have no
receptors sensitive to the ‘heat’ in the
plant and do not destroy the seeds
during digestion, the hotter capsicums
became a staple of Southwest native
diets centuries ago.
Today you can
have the joy of growing these hot little
gems in your own garden. It’s fun and
rewarding. February and March are the
months to get started. Since our last
frost date is mid-May, you want to start
8-10 weeks before that, although you can
wait until late March to sow seed.
Sow the seed
according to package directions in a
standard seed-starting medium. Moisten
and cover with a piece of loose plastic
until the seeds begin to sprout. Pepper
seeds germinate best when soil
temperature is between 70 and 80̊F
so place the medium in a sunny location
or on a heating mat. In about ten days
the plants will germinate.
They are ready
to transplant when they have 4 to 6
leaves. Use pots that will offer ample
room for root growth; pepper plants are
not happy when they are root-bound. If
you buy the plants, make sure the leaf
structure and the root system are full
and healthy. Keep the young plants moist
and give them plenty of sun. When the
danger of frost is past and nighttime
temperatures are above 55̊F,
harden off the plants by gradual
exposure them to the outdoors, then
transplant them to your garden plot,
setting them about 12" apart, or pot on
in containers or pots.
Fertilize with a
balanced fertilizer (10-10-10, 5-10-5).
Avoid excessive nitrogen (the first
number) as the plant will produce leaves
at the expense of fruit. As the nights
warm to between 65-80° F, the plants
will set fruit.
Now that you
know how to plant them, what peppers do
you want? Or, how hot do you like it?
Here’s where Wilbur Scoville comes in. A
chemist with the Parke Davis
pharmaceutical company, in 1912 he
devised a method for measuring the
‘heat’ of a pepper. The ‘heat’ we feel
is caused by capsaicin produced in
glands that line the inner walls of the
pepper. There are five capsaicinoids
produced by peppers, yet they make up
only .1-1.0% of the fruit’s content.
Talk about bang for your buck!
developed a scale to rate the various
peppers’ ‘fire.’ It goes up from 0 in
increments of 100 units, called
Scovilles or Scoville units. The higher
the number, the hotter the pepper. The
bell pepper so familiar in the
supermarket is rated at 0 Scoville
units. Most sweet peppers are in the
0-100 range. Anchos and Pasillas are in
the 1000-2000 range. The much-touted
rate from 2500-5000 Scoville units with
M being near 5000 units.
If you think a
is hot, we’re just getting started! The
Super Hybrid Cayenne and Tabasco peppers
rate from 25,000-50,000 units. But we
still have a way to go. Thai peppers and
the Scotch Bonnet are in the
100,000-350,000 class. And the
It comes in on top, consistently
measuring between 200,000-300,000
Scoville units with the "Red Savina"
rated in excess of 577,000 Scoville
units. Pure capsaicin? 16,000,000
Based on this
scale you can make more sense of the
catalog descriptions and choose peppers
that will suit your taste. You can get a
more complete listing by going to the
Internet and searching Scoville units.
capsaicin is produced by glands in those
four ribs that divide the cell of the
pepper, scraping the inside and removing
the seeds will remove the source of the
heat and a lot of the pain. The seeds
have some, but not excessive amounts, of
the chemical. However, the flesh of the
hotter peppers retains a lot of bite.
Always taste a tiny amount before
popping the entire pepper in your mouth.
not break down very readily in water.
Dairy products are much more effective
since the chemical is soluble in fats,
oils and alcohol. If you eat one that is
too hot, drinking milk or eating yogurt
or even bread will help mitigate the
pain. The bread absorbs and dilutes the
to protect your hands with rubber gloves
when handling hot peppers. I get a pack
of those thin, slip-on plastic gloves in
the paint department of the local
hardware store – very economical and
fast on, fast off. Protect your eyes as
well if you are cutting up the peppers.
And always wash your hands thoroughly
before wiping your eyes or touching your
Want to get more
fruit from your plant? Plant in a bed
covered with black or red plastic mulch.
It keeps the ground warm. Then, harvest
some of the fruit when it is in the
mature green stage (just before it turns
red). Peppers stop setting fruit when
the bush is loaded. Harvesting the
mature green fruit encourages the plant
to continue producing. If left on the
bush, virtually all peppers will turn
homegrown chile peppers. There is a
‘heat’ suited to you. And thank Wilbur
L. Scoville while you’re at it.
other articles by Phillip Peters