— Nan Sterman
They’re sweet, they’re hot, they’re the coolest things around. I’m talking peppers. Big peppers, small peppers, red, orange, purple, yellow, and of course, green.
With so many kinds of peppers on the market, you might be surprised to learn that culinary peppers are all variations on a theme. All are Capsicum anuum, an annual in the nightshade family, which makes them cousins to tomatoes, eggplants, potatoes, and tomatillos. Capsicum anuum is thought to have originated in South America. Columbus took peppers back to the King and Queen of Spain. From there, they spread worldwide.
As with most edibles that have a long history of human use, different cultures and cuisines select for their favorite “types” or styles of peppers: sweet bells, hot peppers, Asian peppers, Italian peppers, and so on.
Hot peppers’ heat comes from a compound called capsaicin, which stimulates nerve endings in skin and mucous membranes (in your nose, eyes, mouth, etc.) Around 1912, American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville devised a scale to rate the heat of different peppers known as the “Scoville Scale.”
The Scoville scale ranges from bell peppers on the bottom end, to law enforcement grade pepper spray at the hot end. Not all hot peppers grow hot, however. Their heat depends in part on your garden conditions: soil, climate, etc.
Grow peppers in full sun, in rich, well-amended soil. Space plants at least 18” apart, depending on the size of the plant (allow more space between larger plants). Irrigate frequently enough to keep the soil damp (not wet), watering with in-line drip irrigation so you don’t wet leaves. Fertilize with an organic vegetable fertilizer, according to directions. Harvest fruits when you decide the color is right (green, red, orange, etc.)
Plants in the pepper family need to be rotated, so grow peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, and tomatillo in one garden bed this year. Next year, move them all to a different bed, then back to the first bed in year three. If you grow these plants in the same place every year, the soil pathogens will multiply and attack the plants’ roots. The plants begin to decline and stop producing earlier than they would otherwise.
Store extra peppers
It’s easy to freeze extra peppers in zip top bags after they are washed and dried. With hot peppers, I just shave off as much of the frozen pepper as I need when I’m cooking.
If you have trouble digesting green bell peppers, try switching to yellow, red, orange, or purple peppers rather than green. Here’s why. All peppers start out green; then mature to red, orange, yellow, or purple. So, a green pepper, is an underripe pepper. According to some sources, the fiber in the skin of green peppers causes indigestion, others say it is the wax in the skin. Either way, these unripe green bells typically cause discomfort. So if the green makes you belch, try a colored pepper – once mature, bell peppers are sweeter and easier to digest.