Growing chillies and peppers can add a bit of spice to your garden. While peppers are available all year round in the supermarket since they feature in many recipes from a large range of different cuisines, a pepper grown at home in the garden has a crisp freshness that can’t be compared. Slicing through a freshly harvested pepper with a sharp knife is not dissimilar to the crispness of cutting through a Granny Smith apple.
The pepper family has many more members than just the common capsicum also known as the bell pepper. This group of plants has many different varieties all with different levels of heat. The heat level varies so much from pepper to another that there is a recognised measurement system called the Scoville Scale to rank it. At the very bottom of the scale is the mild mannered bell pepper which is the only one that doesn’t have any capsaicin, the compound found in peppers and chillies that is responsible for their heat.
The Scoville Scale starts at 0 SHU (Scoville Heat Units) for capsicum and quickly climbs to 2.2 million SHU for the dangerously hot Carolina Reaper. Many culinary peppers fall under the rating of 100,000 – 350,000 for habaneros. Cayenne and Tabasco are somewhere around 30,000 – 50,000 and Jalapenos are quite mild coming in between 2,500 – 8,000. Aside from delivering searing heat, some of the milder varieties can provide a gentle spicy kick and a lovely fruity flavour.
While it may feel like the pain from eating the burning hot chillies is causing damage to the inside of your mouth, and anywhere else touched by the oils, it is just triggering heat sensors in your brain. This is the reason why you are able to increase your tolerance with a gradual addition of spicier chillies to your diet.
Although it isn’t causing damage, it can be quite painful and the best way to counteract the pain is to drink milk. Capsaicin is an oil and having a drink of water will only swish it around, but the protein casein found in milk binds to the capsaicin and rinses it from your mouth.
Capsaicin isn’t without benefits. It was used in ancient times for pain relief, this belief is perpetuated by modern science through studies on the subject and its approved use in pain relief medications.
Peppers have long been used for medicinal and culinary purposes, and it is said that the Aztecs grew and used them for thousands of years. Central and South America is the original home of wild peppers. Brought to Europe by Spanish and Portuguese explorers in the 16th and 17th centuries, it was first introduced by Christopher Columbus, but was mistaken for the desirable peppercorns Piper nigrum, hence its misleading name ‘pepper’.
Another popular misunderstanding about capsicum is their classification. They are often found in the vegetable category, however as they come from a flower bearing plant, they are actually a fruit! Another myth that requires busting is that its gender can be determined by the number of bumps on the bottom. This is a complete fallacy as its reproductive organs are in the flower and, truth be told, the number of bumps also has no impact on the flavour.
The flavour is determined by variety and to some extent the growing conditions. Growing peppers couldn’t be easier! It is best to start them off indoors or in a warm place as early in spring as you can as they like a long hot growing season. It needs to be warm or they won’t germinate. Their ideal temperature is 22C so you can start them off in a hot water cupboard, on a heat pad or on top of a fridge.
They don’t grow very tall, less than a metre, but they benefit from extra support and a bamboo cane put beside the plant at the time of planting will help. Tie the plant to the cane as it grows so when it becomes heavy laden with ripening fruit it will stay upright.
It can take a while for the fruit to appear, but it will benefit from a regular liquid feed once it starts to flower. It is better to water the plant deeply every few days than a shallow sprinkle daily.
Once it begins to fruit, the more you pick the more you get, and they will remain prolific producers until the first good frost comes along and kills the plant. You can use them at any stage, and they don’t need to be big like the ones in the store. They start off green and then turn red or whatever other colour their variety determines. The yellow and orange capsicum are different from the red ones and they don’t go from green, to yellow to red.
Green peppers are just immature fruit and red mature peppers are grown by leaving them on the plant longer and they taste much sweeter and in the case of chillies much hotter. If you want to save seeds to grow again, it is best not to use the green ones.
In their natural environment, they are perennials and can last for years. If you have frost in your area, it is this that will kill your plants. If you can provide a frost-free location or grow them in containers and move them somewhere warm in the winter then you can overwinter them and get your plants off to an early start next season. Alternatively, you can treat them like annuals and sow new seed each season.
The last, and most important, piece of advice for growing chillies is, when handling the fruit, in the garden or in the kitchen, make sure you use gloves and don’t touch yourself anywhere! It is better not to learn this lesson the hard way.