Although most chili peppers are indigenous to South America, they are used and grown around the world. Hot peppers are used in abundance in Mexican, South American, Indonesian, African and Oriental cooking, while the milder peppers are common in European and North American recipes. And, peppers have been cultivated for thousands of years for their medicinal properties, known for lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, in addition to their culinary purposes.
While many pepper plants are perennial (flower and fruit year after year) in their native environment, most garden peppers are grown as annuals (replaced every year). Peppers are part of the nightshade family, which also includes tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, and datura.
What Are Peppers?
The word “peppers” can bring to mind several images. On one end of the spectrum is the sweet bell pepper. On the other is the hottest of the hot peppers, the habanero chili pepper. One has virtually no heat while the other will melt the taste buds off your tongue. Yet these and all those in between are peppers. (By the way, that bit about the habanero melting your taste buds, I was just kidding . . . but it’s pretty near the truth!)
The one thing that all chili peppers share is the common name “capsicum” (pronounced KAP-sih-kuhm). Capsicum, from the Greek kapto meaning “to bite,” is the pepper genus. The five big species of chili peppers are:
- Capsicum annuum—including most of the common varieties like the jalapeno and bell peppers
- Capsicum baccatum—including the berry-like South American chili peppers, aji
- Capsicum chinense—including the fiery habanero
- Capsicum frutescens—including the bushy pepper plants like tabasco
- Capsicum pubescens—including the South American rocoto peppers.
Peppers, especially hot pepper plants with their colorful fruits, are ideal for spot planting around a garden, providing contrast in flowerbeds, or brightening a container garden. When growing peppers in beds, avoid planting the peppers where other members of the nightshade family have been previously planted as they are subject to similar diseases. To prevent cross-pollination, hot pepper plants should not be planted near sweet or bell pepper plants.
When picking peppers from the plant choose those that have shiny skin and are firm to the touch. If you need to pull on the plant to remove the pepper, it’s not ready to be picked. The stems of peppers ready for picking will detach easily from the plant. To avoid damaging pepper plants, however, it’s best to cut the peppers off with a knife or shears.
Chili Pepper Plants
Nearly anything can be converted into a pepper-planting box, as long as it drains well. Try a wooden half-barrel or box, a galvanized pail, or even an old baby buggy.
Bell pepper plants
Bell peppers are at their sweetest and are highest in Vitamins A and C when fully mature. When choosing bell peppers for eating, select those that are firm, heavy for their size with shiny, richly colored skin. A few of the best sweet and bell pepper plants for garden use are:
- ‘Bell Boy’—high yielding bell pepper plant producing green fruit that is red when mature.
- ‘Jingle Bell’—productive plant producing miniature bell peppers that mature to red or yellow.
- ‘Orobelle’—sturdy plant producing large blocky peppers that are golden when mature.
- ‘Purple Beauty’—compact plant producing green peppers that mature to a dark purple and keep their color when cooked.
Hot Pepper Plants
Over half of the 200 varieties of hot pepper plants are indigenous to Mexico. They range in size from just 1/4 inch to 12 inches long. When choosing chili peppers for cooking, select only those that are firm with deep, vividly colored skin. A few of the best hot pepper plants for home growing are:
- ‘Anaheim TMR23’—high yielding hot pepper plants producing medium heat peppers good for stuffing
- Cayenne—prolific hot pepper plant producing wrinkly-skinned peppers that mature from green to brilliant red, sometimes even yellow
- Jalapeno—thick-walled hot pepper, typically used green for salsas and salads
- ‘Thai Hot’—very hot pepper, whose green and red fruits maintain their heat even when cooked.
Pepper Growing Tips
Whether you’re growing peppers in a planter or garden bed, some simple tips will help keep your pepper plants healthy:
- Add eggshells add calcium to the soil, and snails and slugs don’t like crawling over them.
- Coffee grounds and tea leaves add nitrogen.
- Banana peels (chopped up) add potassium.
- Fish scraps add nitrogen and phosphorous.
- Always use proper garden tools.