Hurrah for the Chile Pepper!

Lovers of chile peppers will enjoy how easily jalapeño plants will coexist with the perennials. Photo by Kit Flynn.


By Kit Flynn

I’m not a vegetable gardener—let me make that clear. I cannot consume all the zucchini produced by even one plant; my tomato efforts are doomed to failure; and I dislike the look of enclosed vegetable gardens, so you will agree that mine is not the voice to offer instruction in this area.

However, there is one group of fruit interspersed among my perennials that I dearly love and, more importantly, can grow with great success. With advancing years creeping up on me, I find that I’m reaching more for spicy foods, so this brings me to my great culinary obsession: chiles (and, yes, they are fruits not vegetables). Supplying myself with a jalapeño slice wrapped in cheddar cheese quickly sends me into chile bliss.

Now there’s a great debate whether hot peppers are chiles or chilies. In Texas and New Mexico, they are referred to as “chiles,” whereas the stew is spelled “chili.” Because the residents of these two states undoubtedly know more about chiles than I ever will, I will follow their spelling.

There are five species of Capsicum and over 4000 cultivars. However, the ones that we tend to grow are C. annuum (jalapeño, cayenne, serrano, poblano, and the bell pepper), C. chinense (bonnet-shaped chiles, including the habanero), and C. frutescens (tabasco and Thai peppers).

Making attractive additions to the garden, jalapeños are easy to grow. Plop them in a sunny space after the last freeze, give them an occasional drink of water, and watch them prosper. However, there is one problem with the jalapeño: Due to popular demand, some fail to pack any heat—and  I’m sure some of you will agree that a jalapeño without heat barely qualifies as a jalapeño.

Several years ago, I went to my jalapeño supply store, picked up three plants, and planted them. Much to my dismay, these jalapeños were bland. When I returned to the store, I mentioned this fact only to learn that due to popular request, some growers were beginning to breed the capsaicin out of this chile. Strongly feeling that jalapeño-lovers must unite, I mentioned that perhaps the store could label their jalapeños so that the customer would know which one to choose, but, of course, my many rather heated requests fell on deaf ears.

The following year I decided to take my chances again so I planted three jalapeños—only to find that these were scalding hot. Jalapeños have a wide range on the Scoville Heat Unit Scale—2,500 to 10,000 units—so planting jalapeños is a bit like playing Russian roulette in that you are never quite sure whether your jalapeños will be bland, warm or scorching.

And that is part of the fun as this is a chile that hasn’t been totally tamed by man.

Attractive plants with few pests and no blossom end rot, jalapeños can take what they give: the heat. Photo by Kit Flynn.

The lovely thing about jalapeños is that it’s easy to incorporate them into the perennial garden, provided you give them decent soil and sun. Unlike their temperamental cousin the tomato, jalapeños have few pests, thrive in the hottest part of the summer, and don’t threaten to come down with dreadful things like blossom end rot. In addition, they add an appealing aspect to the garden. Should you desire red jalapeños, this is virtually the only way to acquire them as they have a short shelf life on grocery shelves.

The frustrating thing about chiles is this: While there are so many in existence, the selection is scarce both in our markets and gardening centers. Should you acquire the chile bug, turn your attention to New Mexico, the center for many fabulous chiles. This is the place for chile research because the University of New Mexico has hybridized many interesting cultivars.

A few years ago, it was a fad to grow bhut jolokia (a.k.a., the Ghost Pepper), one of the hottest chiles in existence, ranging on the Scoville Heat Unit Scale between 855,000 and 1,500,000 units. Why grow it when it cannot be savored? Likewise, one year I grew the cayenne chile (30,000 to 50,000 units) only to find that they provided heat with no taste. Pour on the Tabasco and you have its equivalent.

There are two chiles that I would love to grow: the Aleppo pepper and piment d’espelette, both of which play an important role in various European cuisines. I also wish to grow the New Mexican chile, a.k.a., the Hatch chile since it is grown in Hatch, New Mexico.

There is some help on the way should you find yourself in the midst of craving hard-to-find chiles. Developing many wonderful chiles, New Mexico University sells its seeds at Aleppo pepper seeds can be found at while piment d’espelette seeds reside at

Meanwhile, I’m happily feasting on my home-grown jalapeños while visions of chiles dance merrily through my head.

After being an active member of the Durham County Extension Master Gardeners for 13 years, Kit Flynn now holds emeritus status. For five years she was the gardening correspondent for “Senior Correspondent” and shared “The Absentee Gardener” column with fellow Master Gardener Lise Jenkins. She has given numerous presentations on various gardening topics to Triangle organizations and can be reached at

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