Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Peppers!

The pepper, native to the tropics of Central and South America, has probably been cultivated for thousands of years. Archaeologists exploring prehistoric caves in Peru have found the remains of pepper seeds.

South America, Spain, England and the Caribbean all played roles in the introduction of the pepper to North America. Columbus explored the seas in search of a better trade route to the Indies. Dangerous, lengthy overland journeys made spices an expensive commodity for Europeans. When Columbus reached the Caribbean, he tasted a vegetable being grown by the Indians. Its sharp taste reminded him of the familiar black pepper from the East Indies and so he called this vegetable "pepper," as we do to this day. However, Columbus was incorrect as the newly found vegetable was not the pepper of "salt and pepper" (Piper nigrum) but an entirely different genus, Capsicum.

He brought peppers back to Spain where they were considered an appealing alternative to the more traditional spice. The instant popularity of the vegetable is apparent from the comment of Peter Martyr, writing in 1493 that "...in the New World can be found plants hotter than pepper of Caucasus." (He was referring to Piper nigrum.) From Spain the cultivation of the pepper soon spread to the rest of the continent and England. History does not tell us whether peppers reached North America via Europe or the Caribbean.

The first of the English immigrants to the colonies brought the seed of precious vegetables with them to plant in the New World. By the middle of the 18th century, North Americans could import many varieties of flowers and vegetables from England. John Randolph (1727-1784) of Williamsburg, Virginia wrote a treatise on vegetables grown in the New World colonies. In the essays, he referred to "Capsicum...it should be gathered before the pods grow hard for pickles." Research conducted by the National Garden Bureau found that records kept at Mount Vernon indicate George Washington grew a type of "cayan" pepper.

There are over 20 species of pepper but only one is commonly known to North American gardeners, Capsicum annuum. This species contains the pepper varieties widely cultivated in North America. Although Hortus lists five groups within the C. annuum species, we will refer to peppers as one of two kinds--sweet or hot.  Peppers are part of the Solanaceae or Nightshade family which contains over 2000 species of ornamental, medicinal and poisonous plants. This makes the pepper a close cousin to tomato, potato, tobacco, eggplant and petunia.

Bell--This pepper is mostly blocky in shape with three or four lobes on the bottom of the pepper. For years, gardeners could choose only one color of bell, a green that matured to red, Through modern breeding efforts e can now grow bell peppers that mature to an artist's palette of colors including red, yellow, orange, lavender, purple and chocolate. The bell peppers have a crisp, thick flesh and are suitable for eating fresh, or stuffing and baking.

Paprika--When dried and ground, this thin-walled pepper becomes the flavorful condiment paprika.

Pimiento--This heart-shaped pepper measures 3 1/2 by 4 1/2 inches. Fruits have very thick flesh. Strips of this fully mature, bright red, mild tasting pepper are found in stuffed green olives.

Sweet Banana, Sweet Hungarian, Cubanelle--All of these are also referred to as sweet frying or pickling peppers. The shape is long, narrow tapering down to one, two or three lobes. These are thinner-walled than bells and Cubanelle has the thinnest walls of the three. They are usually picked when immature as a light yellow or green. Because they have less water content than bells, they are excellent choices for frying. 'Sweet Banana' is a variety that has withstood the test of time--it was a 1941 All- America Selections Winner. 'Gypsy,' a 1981 AAS Winner is early to mature--only 62 days and performs very well in containers as well as in regular gardens.

Sweet Cherry--Here is a pepper that looks like its name in that it is globe or cherry-shaped and about 1 1/2 inches across. This pepper is harvested when mature green to deep red and is generally used in processing as pickled.

Cayenne--This pepper is slim and tapered, ranging in length from 3 1/2 to 8 inches. Cayennes are often dried. The hybrid 'Super Cayenee' is a 1990 All American Selections Winner. It is very productive, early to mature and hot, hot, hot.

Red Chili--The small cone-shape peppers of this type are 1 to 3 inches long and have medium thick flesh. They are often used dried and ground in chili powder. 'Super Chili,' a 1988 AAS Winner is the first hybrid chili. The compact plants were bred for increased yields.

Green Chili--These are the long (7 to 8 inch) green, two celled mildly pungent Anaheim type peppers that are so flavorful in chile rellenos. They turn red at maturity but are nearly always harvested, green, roasted and peeled. They're the kind you'll find in the canned goods section of supermarkets labeled "Green Chile Peppers."

Hungarian Yellow Wax (also called Hot Banana)--This pepper is pungent but still one of the more mild "hots." It is 5 to 6 inches long and picked when an immature greenish yellow color but matures to orangish red. This type is good for pickling or canning.

Jalapeno--Jalapenos are the popular peppers used in many Mexican entrees. They are 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 inches long and have a thick-walled pungent flesh. They may be harvested when immatue green or mature red and are good for pickling or canning. There are many varieties of jalapeno peppers with varying degrees of pungency. It has been said that more than 200,000 pounds of jalapeno seed is planted in Mexico annually!

Red Cherry--This hot pepper is only 1 1/2 inches across and shaped like a cherry. It may be used fresh or pickled, primarily pickled.

Red Hot Peppers--There are other Capsicum annuum in the Longum Group that add distinct flavor to their native regional cuisines. These vary in plant and fruit size and shape. Smaller plants are attractive in patio containers and hanging baskets. These scorchers such as Chili Tepine, Chile Peguin, Tabasco, and Thai, mature red and zest-up foods. Many additional kinds are available. Small hot yellow peppers like Cascabella and Santa Fe Grande are used primarily for canning and pickling. There is the hot Serrano type that is popular in the Southwest. There is Habanero, said to be 50 times hotter than Jalapeno peppers.

Choose a sunny area of the garden as peppers need full sun to blossom and set fruit. Growth in full sun will result in a more productive plant. Select a spot protected from the wind as pepper plants have shallow, easily disturbed roots and brittle branches. A strong wind may break stems or completely uproot the plants.

The plant will perform best in well-drained soil with adequate nutrition for plant growth. To insure adequate nutrition, use fertilizers or work in well-rotted compost when preparing the garden soil in the spring.

A pepper plant does not take up a lot of garden space, at least when compared to vines like watermelon or pumpkin. Depending on the variety, most pepper plants will measure 2 to 3 feet tall. A half dozen plants should provide a family with a summer long crop of peppers. Gardeners with limited space can even grow peppers in containers. A large patio container will support one of the compact varieties such as 'Gypsy.'

Many gardeners start seeds indoors early, then transplant to their garden, but seeds can be planted directly into prepared garden soil in long season areas. Sow pepper seed outdoors once the soil temperature has warmed to 75 degrees F. Place seed 1/4 to 1/4 inch deep, cover with finely textured soil and water gently but thoroughly. Peppers need moist conditions to germinate and are hungry for water during the seedling stage and throughout the growing season.

No time to sow and grow from seed? Head out to the local nursery or garden center! You will find pepper plants that are just the right size for transplanting into the garden. Look for healthy plants that are green with strong foliage. Yellowed leaves, spindly stems or sparse foliage indicate the plant is not thriving and probably will not perform well in your garden.

The same procedure and care are recommended for planting bedding plants or peppers home grown from seed. Wait until the weather has warmed to a daytime temperature of 65 to 70 degrees F. and nighttime temperature above 55 degrees F. To help warm the soil, black plastic may be placed on the ground. Slits can be made in the plastic to accommodate the plants.

Space plants about 2 feet apart. This distance will vary slightly depending on the variety. Rows should be spaced at least 2 feet apart. This will allow enough air circulation for the plants, permit easy cultivation and harvest. A time release fertilizer can be added to the soil now according to directions on the package. This fertilizer releases nutrients into the soil for about 120 days.

Peppers should grow rapidly given warm day and night temperatures. During this period of rapid growth be sure to provide adequate water and nutrients. Water the soil before plant foliage begins to droop or show signs of wilting. Take care to watch plants and look for any insect problems. Most locations in North America can grow any type of hot or bell pepper without any major problem.

If you notice blossoms dropping of your pepper plant, temperature may be the reason. The pepper is a warm season vegetable. It grows and produces fruit when the soil and air temperatures are warm. The temperature range for fruit set is quite narrow. When nighttime temperatures fall below 60 degrees F. or above 75 degrees F., blossoms are likely to drop and fruit will not set. Daytime temperatures above 90 degrees F. will also inhibit fruit set, but fruits will again begin to form when cooler daytime temperatures appear.

Gardeners may find that pests cause occasional problems. Early detection can prevent damage; inspect plants frequently for telltale signs of insects; presence. Large insects can often be removed from the plant. Any damaged leaves or stems should be removed and destroyed. Insects often make their homes among garden debris, quickly moving on to healthy plants. Remove debris from pruning or weeding once the yard chore is finished. If increasing insect populations appear, contact a garden center or a county Extension agent for information about insecticides to reduce insect populations.

Aphids are a major source of pepper problems. They are very small insects (under 1/10 inch) found clustered on the undersides of leaves and on new growth. As they feed they suck plant juices; leaves become yellowed and distorted. They can spread all viruses, particularly Cucumber Mosaic Virus.

Thrips are another likely source of pepper problems. These small flying insects congregate by the hundreds. Thrips are active insects, wounding plants to suck sap like aphids. Thrips damage leaves which generally curl upward into a "boat-shape." These insects can infect peppers with Tomato Spotted Wilt Virus (TSWV).

While there are many viruses that can harm peppers, the following are the most prevalent in North America.

Tobacco Mosaic Virus--Leaves become yellow and a mosaic pattern can be seen on them. Eventually plants become stunted and fruit discolored. Because TMV can be found in tobacco, refrain from smoking near the plants. Do not handle plants after smoking tobacco. Many pepper varieties have resistance or tolerance to Tobacco Mosaic Virus.

Wilt diseases--These are caused by the fungi Verticilium and Fusarium present in the soil. The initial symptoms are wilting, upward curling of leaves, and yellowing. Eventually the stems and roots of the plant are affected. Verticilium wilt is more common in the western and northern parts of North America. Fusarium wilt is more likely to occur under conditions of wet soil and high temperatures.

Phytophthora root rot is caused by organisms found in heavy, poorly drained soils. These diseases are best prevented by good water management and crop rotation.

Cucumber Mosaic Virus--Plants are severely stunted with light green, leathery foliage. Leaves and fruit may develop yellow spots and rings. This virus is worldwide and can infect many food crops and weeds. Aphids can transmit CMV from weeds to vegetables and back to weeds.
Viruses and wilts are not very common in gardens. If a pepper plant appears to have the symptoms of a wilt or virus, the only action to take is to remove and destroy the plant.

There is no cure for a wilt or virus. Plants can be burned or put through a garbage disposal, if small, but do not allow the plant to be put into a community or home compost pile where the virus or wilt could infect other plants.

Peppers may be harvested and enjoyed when immature or mature. There is not a "best" time ti harvest, let personal taste preference be the guide. Remember that sweet peppers become sweeter as they mature and hot peppers come hotter.

To harvest, do not pull or tear a pepper from a plant. Peppers have shallow root systems and it doesn't take too forceful a pull to dislodge the entire plant from the ground. Fruits of many varieties will easily snap off at the tem. With some varieties you will need to use a sharp knife or scissors to cut the fruit stem from the plant. Harvesting regularly will encourage the plant to keep blossoming and setting fruit, especially early in the growing season. If the temperature just drops below 32 degrees F. for a short time, covering the pepper plants will protect them from damage. At the end of the growing season such as September in Minneapolis, if there is a threat of killing frost, pick all fruit regardless of the size. This is the last harvest for the plants.

A cautionary note on preparing HOT peppers for storage or cooking. The "heat" in hot peppers is an oil called capsaicin that is contained in the placenta (membranes that join the seed to the fruit). This oil will easily get on hands and fingers during the cutting and cleaning process.

If you then rub your eyes, nose or mouth, the oils will be transferred to these areas with a distinctly painful burning. Wear plastic gloves while cutting the hot peppers to prevent any of the oil from covering your hands. Wash hands after preparing is finished. Do not rub your eyes!

Should you forget to use caution and end up with burning hands, gel from the leaf stem of an aloe vera plant offers immediate relief when applied to hands or other burning areas. Use the gel carefully. A 10 percent solution of chlorox will also neutralize the capsaicin.

The temperature of a 'hot' pepper can be controlled by using or excluding the seeds and placenta (the center) of the pepper when cooking. If you wish a dish to be 'hot' include the hot pepper parts. If you want less heat, use the flesh only and dispose of the placenta and seeds.

Peppers may be stored fresh, frozen, dried or pickled. Peppers will continue to ripen after being picked. Store peppers at room temperature if you wish them to ripen. The ripening process will be slowed if the peppers are stored under cool conditions. If whole fresh peppers are placed in plastic wrap and stored in the refrigerator, they should keep for at least a week.

Peppers are among the easiest of vegetables to freeze. Most peppers such as sweet bell or jalapeno need not be cooked or blanched prior to freezing. Simply wash, slice open and remove seeds. They may be cut into strips, chopped or diced and placed in a freezer container. Once thawed the peppers will be soft but well-suited for use in soups, stews or cooked vegetable dishes.

Mature peppers may also be dried for long term storage. Make a Mexican ristra, a long string of dried chili peppers that can be hung on the wall for easy accessibility as well as a colorful decoration. Use fresh chili peppers leaving the stems on. Make a small slit on each side of the pepper just below the stem. Insert a needle and thread through these slits and string the peppers together. Hang in a warm dry place. Use them in appropriate recipes or as a decoration. To dry "hot" peppers such as jalapeno, use waxed dental floss because the capsaicin oil dissolves thread.

Peppers are the right food for people seeking a healthy, nutritious diet. Low in calories, high in Vitamins A and C, peppers are also high in a very important mineral--potassium. One cup of raw sweet green peppers contains 22 calories. For comparison a cup of cucumber is 16, cottage cheese is 223 and whole orange is about 41 calories.

A red sweet or hot pepper contains about ten times more vitamin A and double the amount of Vitamin C than an immature green pepper. A 100 gram serving of red hot peppers eaten raw contains 369 milligrams of Vitamin C. The same serving size of sweet raw green pepper contains 128 milligrams, about one third less.

Whether green or red a pepper contains more Vitamin C than a whole orange which contains only about 50 milligrams. For potassium rich foods, an average banana contains 370 milligrams and a cup of green sweet pepper has 213 mg raw and 149 mg if boiled before being eaten.

Source: Texas A&M