Chile Peppers: Adding Heat to Your Garden

From the cool and mild bell to the scorching-hot habanero, there's a pepper for every palate.

There's a lot to love in these colorful warm-weather vegetables: The active ingredient in chile peppers is used in ointments that soothe sore muscles and in thug-repelling pepper spray. Another good use: Chile powder is fed to captive flamingoes to keep their feathers pink. But the most popular reason chile pepper aficionados love them is for their flavor. There's plenty of diversity in fruit shapes, colors and sizes and the way the plants grow. And, of course, there's diversity in the heat among various types of chiles.

The heat in a chile pepper is found along the crosswalls and is quantified using the Scoville scale, which measures how many units of dilution it takes to eliminate a chile's heat altogether. A sampling of some of your favorite peppers: orange habanero, 210,000; tabasco, 120,000; jalapeno, 25,000; Long Slim cayenne, 23,000; pasilla, 5,500; serrano, 4,000; bell, 0. The heat of a chile used to be determined by taste, but today pepper researchers use high-performance liquid chromatography. It \"tastes\" the peppers and analyzes the components that produce heat.

Depending on variety, the orange habanero is among the hottest of peppers, registering 210,000 Scoville units. Red habaneros typically average 150,000 units. The mildest pepper, 0 on the Scoville scale, is the bell pepper, which most people don't realize is a part of the chile pepper family. The heat of a pepper depends on more than genetics, however. Drought and high temperatures can make a pepper hotter, while mild temperatures and plenty of moisture render it milder.

Often called \"the mother of all chiles,\" the chiltepin is a wild chile that grows in the Southwest and Mexico. Plant breeders capitalize on the chiltepin's genetic makeup to develop disease resistance and plant hardiness in new chile pepper varieties. Today, there are hundreds for gardeners to choose from.

A Peruvian pepper, the Aji varieties are considered medium hot (up to 50,000 Scoville units).

Besides the degree of heat, peppers differ in the sensation of heat. Asian chiles, shown here, have a very sharp heat that comes on quickly and dissipates just as fast. Red savina, a small lantern-like chile, has a broad, lingering heat.

An ornamental pepper that works well in containers, 'NuMex Twilight' fruits begin purple, transition to yellow, then orange and finally to red. This pepper measures up to 100,000 on the Scoville scale.

Tips for Growing Healthy Peppers

In mild climates the peppers can be grown as perennials, but most gardeners grow them as warm-season annuals. If you can grow tomatoes, odds are you can grow chile peppers. Be careful not to provide too much nitrogen. Otherwise, a big, lush plant will grow but with no fruit. Another tip: Crop rotation is critical for keeping soil-borne diseases away from growing pepper plants, which are notorious for picking up viral diseases.

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