In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
June, 2011
Regional Report

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Spread mulch around pepper plants to maintain soil moisture.

Chile Peppers

Think "Southwestern cuisine" and visions of chile peppers will likely dance in your head. According to the authors of Chasing Chiles: Hot Spots Along the Pepper Trail (Chelsea Green, 2011, $17.95), archaeologists say that indigenous populations of Mexico have been growing, managing and, of course, eating chile peppers for 6000 years. Today, the fiery fruits are integral to cuisines worldwide. Can you imagine Thai or spicy Szechuan food without the heat of chiles?

There are dozens and dozens of pepper varieties to experiment with in your garden. Most people chose varieties based on their tastebuds' tolerance for heat. A pepper's heat, also called piquancy, is rated by Scoville Heat Units: the bigger the number, the greater the burn! Habanero chiles are much-loved scorchers, clocking in with 300,000+ Scoville units. Poblanos are less potent, usually under 2500 units. Realize that selected varieties, genetics, growing conditions, and weather all play a part in determining an individual chile's fire.

Capsaicin is the chemical compound producing the heat. Capsaicin is found mainly in the white membranes and seeds, so if you grow peppers that turn out to be beyond your tolerance level, reduce heat by removing this material before cooking or eating. If you're sensitive, wear plastic gloves when working with hot chiles and never ever rub your eyes, nose, or open cuts!

Another method for selecting chiles to grow is how you plan to cook with them. If you're dicing them up for heat, size doesn't matter. But if you want chiles for stuffing, such as chiles rellenos, you need a decent size, such as ancho, poblano or the popular Hatch green chile from Hatch, New Mexico. Jalapenos are another option well-suited for hors d'oeuvres-sized "poppers."

I like growing peppers strictly for ornamental reasons. The plants are pretty when covered with bright yellow, red, or orange fruits. 'Bolivian Rainbow' pepper plants have distinct purple foliage and flowers topped by tiny cone-shaped fruits held upright. Fruits start purple, but turn to yellow, orange, and eventually red, with all colors gracing the plant at once. They make pretty hostess gifts instead of flowers.


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