Some Like It Hot - Growing Hot Peppers

Phillip Peters
Adams County Master Gardener

Thank heavens 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.

Hot chile 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!

Scoville 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 jalapeños rate from 2500-5000 Scoville units with Jalapeño M being near 5000 units.

If you think a jalapeño 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 redoubtable habanera? It comes in on top, consistently measuring between 200,000-300,000 Scoville units with the "Red Savina" habanera rated in excess of 577,000 Scoville units. Pure capsaicin? 16,000,000 Scoville units!

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.

Since the 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.

Capsaicin does 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 capsaicin.

Always remember 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 body.

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 red.

Try some homegrown chile peppers. There is a ‘heat’ suited to you. And thank Wilbur L. Scoville while you’re at it.

Read other articles by Phillip Peters