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2006 Is the Year of the Chile Pepper

Chile peppers are diverse with many colors and fruit shapes.

What is it about a chile pepper that has captivated humanity for millennia? Certainly, the plants with their ripe fruit in a range of colors from red through orange to yellow, green, purple, brown, and black are beautiful and eye-catching in the garden. Yet, it is in the kitchen that the passion for chiles and their diversity becomes evident. Their flavors--smoky, nutty, or fruity heat--are as varied as their looks, adding subtle to dynamic dimensions to any recipe.

Some experts speculate chile pepper heat (and the subsequent oral pain) stimulates the production of endorphins in the brain, conferring a sense of well being similar to a runner's "high."

Cooks enjoy having a variety of fresh chiles at hand for their range of flavors, and for more control of the heat. A gardener grows chiles because they are so rewarding; extremely productive, less prone to diseases than other vegetables, and beautiful.

All peppers originated in Central and South America. Archeological evidence in Mexico suggests that native peoples gathered wild chiles as far back as 7,000 BC; by 2,500 BC they were cultivating chile peppers.

Red ripe cayenne peppers growing in a flowerbed are an attractive accent to salvia, rudbeckia and gaillardia.

In his quest to find a shorter trade route to the East Indies in the late 15th century, Christopher Columbus ended up in the Caribbean where he sampled a vegetable grown by the natives. Its fiery taste was reminiscent of the spice black pepper (Piper nigrum) grown in the East Indies. With the flavor connection in mind, Columbus gave the piquant vegetable the moniker "pepper." He didn't know that black pepper was the berry of the tropical vine in the genus Piper and that the New World peppers are shrubby plants in the genus Capsicum.

Columbus took them to Europe and they were traded throughout Southeast Asia and India, where they were quickly adopted by cultures already immersed in spicy foods. By the time they got to North America, chile peppers were less than an overnight sensation. But records dating to the Colonial days show that both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, at Mount Vernon and Monticello respectively, grew a cayenne pepper of some type. Chiles were occasionally used in some households, but basically as regional delights. They were hard to find outside New Orleans and the Southwest until the middle of the 20th century.

Today the majority of chile varieties offered in nurseries and from seed companies are quite domesticated, some are hybrids. They grow in a similar manner to bell peppers and many other vegetables.

In full sun, the black leaves and shiny black pepper of 2006 AAS winner 'Black Pearl' contrast strikingly with bright flowers such as petunias.

It is easy to get started with them. Choose sturdy looking plants of your favorite flavor with dark green foliage. Avoid those with yellowed leaves and long spindly growth as they generally fail to thrive. For a greater choice of chiles, many gardeners, including the thrill-seeking fire-eaters, order seeds from mail-order seed companies that offer a plethora of ethnic and specialty chile peppers. Give them full sun, rich soil (amended with compost, well-rotted manure, or leaf mold) and good drainage. Allow two feet between plants. If the small plants are starting to produce flower buds, pinch them off and continue to do this for 1 to 2 weeks; this forces the plants to put their energy into growing leaves and roots. Mulch with 2 to 3 inches of organic matter. Mulch keeps weed growth down and maintains soil moisture. Stake varieties that grow taller than 2 feet.

Peppers cultivated in a hot climate with days in the 95F range are spicier than those grown where days are in the 70s. Drought-stricken chiles are hotter than those grown with lots of water. If you prefer milder peppers, keep the plants well watered and provide afternoon shade in Florida where they often grow for several years as perennials and sometimes get as large as shrubs. A general rule of thumb is the riper the chile, the hotter it is. That said, ripe peppers have a different flavor than unripe ones. Let your personal taste and the recipe determine when to pick each pepper.

Capsaicin (cap-say-a-sin), an alkaloid compound unique to chile peppers, gives them their heat. It creates a pleasure/pain response in the mouth, but it burns the skin and eyes. Always use caution when handling hot peppers. To protect your hands, use disposable latex gloves. Never touch your face near your eyes, mouth, or nasal passages. Capsaicin is produced primarily in the veins and placental tissue of the pepper, but with an especially hot variety, take care when harvesting. If you accidentally get pepper juice in your eye immediately wash it out with clean cool water. And if you eat too fiery a pepper, get some relief by eating yogurt, ice cream, or milk.

Photos courtesy: National Garden Bureau