By Barbara Porsch, Permian Basin Master Gardener
Pepper, peppers, more peppers. Growing more popular by the day. Think about this. Hot chile peppers are consumed DAILY by at least one quarter of the earth’s population! Many more than that eat them with varying regularity. Although it is the most used spice/condiment/fruit in the world, its financial value is not near the value of many lesser used spices. Why is this? It is because it is easily grown by many of its consumers. Compare the price of a jalapeno at the market with a tiny amount of saffron. It would take a real enthusiast to pick the stamen out of a specific crocus blossom to get enough saffron to use. But almost anybody can grow a jalapeno plant in their garden or flower bed. And many do. If you can find good transplants at your favorite nursery, it might not be too late to get some going at home. They really want the ground to be warm when you plant them.
We are here to ignite an enthusiasm for growing and trying different varieties of the fruit of a perennial (tender in this area) with the genus name Capsicum. We call them peppers because in 1492 Columbus missed his mark looking for the East Indies and its exotic spices. He returned to Spain with a new pungent spice they mistakenly called pepper. Think on this. The Italians wouldn’t have spaghetti sauce if the tomato seed hadn’t been taken from the Americas, and likewise the hot dishes of Africa and India or the cuisines of southwestern Szechuan or Hunan would not be the same without the chilies taken back by Columbus.
Of course, everybody is familiar with the old reliable green bell pepper used fresh in salads, and stir fried with onions for fajitas or stuffed with a meat loaf mixture and baked. This pepper does well here in West Texas. Another excellent sweet pepper that does well in this area is the Pimiento. It has a very thick wall of sweet fruit and excellent used raw in salads. Then there is the Cubanelle. This is often called the Italian frying pepper. They are excellent raw also, but shine when sauteed with onions and thinly sliced potatoes in a heavy cast iron skillet. Excellent!! The Paprika is often available and it has a nice sweet flavor sometimes with a slight tinge of heat. That about does it for my expertise with sweet peppers. My strong point is hot and hotter.
Fortunately in the past few years, the local nurseries have started carrying a much larger selection of vegetables, fruits and herbs for the home gardener. Many of my recommended peppers are easily found locally; even the hot hot Habanero. It can absolutely curl your toenails. It is the second hottest on the Scoville Scale, a scale that measures heat units of peppers. The Habanero plant is a pretty addition to the garden or a sunny border. It is a stocky short plant that has a long growing season and matures late in the season. One plant is enough to have and to share. The best method I have found to preserve them is to pick when beautifully orange and ripe and save them in the freezer in a glass mason jar with a tight-fitting lid. They are always ready for any recipe I have that requires one. And one is all you ever need!
The Jalapeno is the most popular pepper grown by home gardeners. And lest you think this is a simple decision, there are many varieties of the Jalapeno to choose from. There is obviously the plain, old fashioned Jalapeno, the Jalapeno ‘TAM jalapeno’ which was bred at Texas A&M to retain the flavor, but eliminate most of the heat, and the Jalapeno ‘Ole’ which is bigger than normal, so it is excellent for stuffing.
Also, easily found locally is the Serrano which is excellent in salsas, and the Tabasco which is the primary ingredient in the most famous hot sauce in the world, and mainstay of Creole cooking. You might try the Cayenne which also makes a flavorful hot sauce, but also dries beautifully for preservation and decoration. Without even planting it, you might fall heir to the Chile Pequin courtesy of bird droppings. This bright red small pea sized ball of fire is a hardy perennial in south Texas where it grows wild along the roadside. It is excellent for flavoring and for making hot vinegar sauce which is traditionally sprinkled on beans and greens in the south.
Then there are ornamental peppers which make beautiful additions to sunny borders and patios as well as the garden. There are purple, orange, red and yellow ones as well as some with eye catching variegated leaves. Even though they are usually just labeled as ornamental, they are edible and usually hot. These ornamental varieties lend themselves well to pot culture. One especially is the Super Chili, an ornamental hybrid which does extremely well in a big pot. It is a short spreading plant which bears small super hot peppers. These are excellent in stir fry dishes as is the Thai Dragon.
So, give a new chili a try. If not this year, then look for them next spring.