Uses For Chiltepin Peppers: How To Grow Chiltepin Chili Peppers
By: Amy Grant
Did you know that chiltepin pepper plants are native to the United States? Actually, chiltepins are the only wild pepper giving them the nickname “mother of all peppers.” Historically, there have been many uses for chiltepin peppers throughout the Southwest and across the border. Interested in growing chiltepins? Read on to learn how to use chiltepin and care for pepper plants.
Information on Chiltepin Pepper Plants
Chiltepin peppers (Capsicum annuum var glabriuculum) can still be found growing wild in southern Arizona and into northern Mexico. The plants bear tiny fruit often referred to as “bird’s eye peppers,” and boy do these little babies pack a punch.
On the Scoville heat index, chiltepin peppers score 50,000-100,000 units. That’s 6-40 times hotter than a jalapeño. While the tiny fruits are indeed hot, the heat is fleeting and combined with a pleasant smokiness.
Wild peppers are most often found growing under plants like mesquite or hackberry, preferring a shaded area in the low desert. Plants only grow to about a foot in height and mature in 80-95 days.
Plants are propagated via seed that can be difficult to germinate. In the wild, the seeds are eaten by birds that scarify the seeds as they pass through its digestive system, absorbing water along the way.
Mimic this process by scarifying the seeds yourself which will allow them to absorb water more readily. Keep the seeds consistently moist and warm during germination. Have patience, as sometimes it takes up to a month for the seeds to germinate.
Seeds are available at heirloom and native plant seed sellers online.
Care for Chiltepin Pepper Plants
Chiltepin pepper plants are perennials that, provided the roots don’t freeze, will reliably return with summer monsoons. These frost sensitive plants should be planted against a south-facing wall to protect them and imitate their ideal microclimate.
How to Use Chiltepin Peppers
Chiltepin peppers are most commonly sundried, although they are also used fresh in sauces and salsas. Dried peppers are ground into powder to add to spice mixes.
The chiltepin is also mixed with other spices and pickled, creating a mouthwatering condiment. These peppers have also found their way into cheeses and even into ice cream. Traditionally, the fruit is mixed with either beef or game meat to preserve it.
For centuries, chiltepin peppers have been used medicinally as well, due to the capsaicin they contain.
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Growing Chili Peppers: The Complete Guide to Plant, Care, and Harvest ChiliesCraig Taylor
Craig is a self-sufficiency gardener who lives in Auckland, New Zealand. He has six vegetable gardens, a 7-meter glass house, and 35-tree orchard that provide food for his family. All spray-free. He is a prepper who likes strange plants and experiment with heritage plants to save seeds.
I love growing chili peppers in my garden. For me, they’re practically a cash crop. One or two plants give me enough veggies for the season with plenty left to preserve, freeze, sell or give away.
Chilies are the fiery cousin of tomatoes, so as you’d expect, they like similar conditions. Fresh or dried, chilies are effective stimulants and digestives. They’re also high in vitamin A and C, which is why they were carried on sailing ships as a delicious way to prevent scurvy.
Beyond being prolific and easy to grow, chili peppers are invaluable in cooking if you like a little spice. You can use them to make hot sauces, to flavor up salads, to spice a curry, or to add flavor to a drink. Whether you like a little heat or a lot, there’s a pepper out there with your name on it.
Chiltepin peppers, spice and medicine
The pea-sized chiltepin pepper (Capsicum annuum var. glabriusculum) is thought to be the ancestral plant of all chili peppers. It is native to Arizona, Texas, Florida, Mexico, and Central and South America. The chiltepin plant is a bush that grows up to four feet tall and it prefers well-drained sandy soil.
Chiltepins are very hot and the heat is said to be quick, intense, but not long-lasting compared to some other hot peppers. The heat is due to the chemical capsaicin which is an irritant to chemoreceptors in the skin and mucus membranes in mammals. How hot? The Scoville scale measures the amount of capsaicin in peppers. The amount of capsaicin in a particular plant depends on growing conditions, therefore, the Scoville scale presents a range of hotness. For comparison, Poblano peppers range from 1,000 to 2,500 Scoville units Jalapeños range from 3,500 to 8.000 Serrano peppers range from 10,000 to 23,000 Cayenne and Tabasco peppers range from 30,000 to 50,000, Chiltepins range from 50,000 to 100,000 and the Habanero ranges from 100,000 to 350,000. Pepper spray, used for defense comes in at 5 million. (Pure capsaicin is 16 million on the scale.)
The chiltepin pepper is a fruit that seeks to disperse its seeds to reproduce. Why then would it make its fruit unpalatable to many animals that might disperse the seeds? The answer is that the chiltepin is selective. Mammals have the chemoreceptors that make capsaicin irritating mammals also have big teeth that can crush the seeds. Birds, on the other hand, lack teeth to crush the seeds and lack the chemoreceptors and are therefore immune to the irritation. Birds eat the peppers and deposit the seeds (with a little fertilizer) away from the original plant.
By the way, capsaicin is neutralized by animal fat. So, if a pepper is too hot for you, drink some whole milk or eat some butter or sour cream.
Chiltepins have long been used by native people to spice food and as a food preservative. Chiltepins were also used medicinally. The capsaicin is an antibacterial agent. The Pima Bajo people used chiltepins to relieve stomach disorders. The Mayo Indians mixed chiltepin leaves with alcohol to make a liniment for rheumatism. The Tarahumara Indians chewed the fruit with other plants for headache. Apparently capsaicin, when eaten, causes the brain to release endorphins, which are natural painkillers. Today, of course, you can buy capsaicin creams in the drug stores for topical pain relief.
Chiltepins have a good flavor I prefer them when they are green. But if you try them, be prepared for the intense heat.
How Hot is the Chiltepin Pepper?
The Chiltepin is quite hot, and in Mexico, the heat of the pepper is considered “arrebatado” which means “rapid” or “violent” because the intense heat is not long lasting, unlike many chili peppers that have a slower and more enduring effect.
The heat measures up to 100,000 Scoville Heat Units on the Scoville Scale, which is quite hot. Compare that to an average jalapeno pepper, which averages about 5,000 Scoville Heat Units, making the pepper up to 20 times hotter than a jalapeno.
A serrano pepper measures up to 23,000 SHU, so the Chiltepin can be more than 4 times hotter.
However, a chemical study made in 2015 measured these peppers at a range of 50,000 – 1,628,000 SHU, which would place them in the realm of the superhot chili peppers.
Gardening in Tucson, Phoenix, Arizona and California Back to Menu
Chili (including Bell) peppers belong to the Nightshade family (Solanaceae), genus Capsicum (chilies), and originate in the Americas. A tropical perennial bush, chilies are normally grown as an annual in the United States.
The word Chili comes from the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs meaning Capsicum fruit. Pepper is actually a misnomer because these plants are not related to the Black Pepper of India nor the Szechuan Pepper of Asia.
Chilies were first introduced to Asia by the Portuguese after the year 1500 and have become a standard part of the diet. Some of their appeal is that the capsaicin heat in the chilies is anti-microbial, killing bacteria by the millions and making food without refrigeration safer to eat.
There are five domesticated and 23 wild chili species. Three species are most common in North American grocery stores. Capsicum annuum (a perennial south of the United States) is the most widely domesticated and includes nearly all familiar varieties, among them Bell and Jalapeno. Capsicum chinense (originating in the Amazon basin) includes Habanero and its even hotter cousins. Capsicum frutescens is found in Tabasco sauce. Other species are increasingly available to the home gardener.
The leaves and stems of all Chili plants are poisonous.
Selecting Seedlings and When to Plant
At a nursery, choose large, robust seedlings that do not yet have fruit. While seedlings without blossoms are often recommended as the best choice, plants with blossoms but no fruit are okay as long as you snip off the blossoms as soon as you get home. The plant should still be in a growth mode and not switched to fruit production mode.
If Bell-type peppers are desired, consider the smaller pod 'Carmen Sweet Pepper' which is prolific in high temperatures. Like Bells, Carmens have no heat. Bells often do not set fruit when temperatures are over 90°F but may begin to set fruit once the weather is cool.
Unless the nursery kept them in full sun, harden seedlings off before planting by leaving them out during the day, and then bring them inside next to a sunny window. One hour outside the first day, two hours the second, four hours the third. On the fourth day plant them in the morning. Be sure to water the newly planted seedlings.
Put chili plants in the ground when the danger of frost is past. In case a late frost is predicted, be prepared to surround each plant with Wall O' Water or plastic bottles filled with water. Chilies are badly damaged or killed by frost.
Chili Plant Location
Place chilies in well-draining soil in raised garden beds or pots with bottoms not resting in saucers. Chilies do not like wet toes.
Do not crowd chilies. They should be 18-24" apart in rows 24-36" apart, depending on pod size. In other words, 3-6 square feet is needed per chili plant to at least 2 feet deep. The larger the pod produced by the plant, the more space is required. Bell and Poblano chilies need 6 square feet of space for each plant.
When putting seedlings in the ground, remove the entire pot, whether peat moss or plastic. Peat moss pots do not rot in our dry soil and retard root growth, regardless of claims that roots can grow through them.
Set seedlings in the ground at the same depth that they were in the pot. Do not place their crowns (stem-root junction) above soil level.
Shade new seedlings with 50% shade for the first four days to prevent wilting. After that, provide full sun.
Rotate plants yearly so that the same garden bed does not see nightshade family members more than one year in four. This can be done by dividing the garden into four equal quarters. In any one year, three-fourths of your garden should NOT be growing nightshade plants. Nightshade family members include chilies and Bell peppers, tomatoes, tomatillos, eggplants, potatoes, and golden berries. This will discourage the build-up of soil-borne diseases common to nightshades.
Use containers only for plants that produce small chili pods such as Chiltepins and ornamentals. The roots of large pod plants need more space than a container can provide. If using containers, the sides should be white or a light color to prevent the sun from baking the roots.
Avoid planting chilies near beans, any cabbage family member, or fennel. The roots of these plants produce chemicals in the soil that stunt or harm chilies or vigorously compete for the same nutrients.
Good nearby companions for chilies are basil, carrot, geraniums, onion, marjoram, oregano, and parsley. Their aromas deter some insect pests. Allow some of the parsley and basil to flower. This will attract hoverflies which prey on aphids. Because aphids prefer them, geraniums in pots are used as a trap crop, sacrificed to protect chilies and other edibles.
Chili plants do best with support. Cylindrical cages with vertical sides made of field fence, or concrete reinforcing mesh, about 19" in diameter and 3 to 4' tall, with 6" long wire spikes on the bottom to anchor them into the soil, are best. Avoid wire supports that are wider at the top than at the bottom. These easily topple over in strong winds.
Concrete reinforcing mesh can also be used like a fence. Attach it, or field fencing, to steel T-posts. Tie vines loosely along the fence. Check the ties periodically to ensure stems are not being constricted.
Sun and Shade in the Chili Pepper Garden
Provide full sun in the morning and 50% afternoon shade. Chilies need 6 hours or more of sunlight. However, always provide at least 50% afternoon shade when temperatures are over 90°F. Growers in Phoenix have reported good success growing chilies on the east side of their houses.
Experiments have shown that seedlings grown in 50% shade until they were allowed to flower had more fruit per plant, a greater mean weight per fruit, and a much greater total weight of fruit per plant.
Chilies are not particularly sensitive to soil acidity, but best results are obtained in the 6.0 to 6.8 pH range. Soils in valleys often range from pH 7.5 to 8.0. Do not use ammonium sulfate to acidify the soil because this is a high nitrogen fertilizer. For further information, see Soil Preparation.
Place chilies in raised garden beds or pots with bottoms not resting in saucers. This is the best way to prevent overwatering, especially during heavy rains. Chilies do not like wet toes.
Adjust the frequency and amount of watering to rainfall cycles. Do not water if there has just been a heavy downpour. Make sure the rainfall has penetrated deeply and not just wet the surface. A moisture meter purchased on the Internet can help with this.
Water consistently to avoid blossom end rot.
Use mulch around chili plants to retain soil moisture. During the hottest days of June through August, many plants experience water loss by transpiration [evaporation through their leaves], no matter how wet the ground is. The results are wilting, flower drop, and sometimes even fruit drop. The simplest method of fighting transpiration water loss is to increase the humidity around the plants by wetting thick layers of mulch and by growing in 50% afternoon shade. Chilies are tropical and love high humidity.
For chili plants in containers, use a wider than normal saucer filled with small gravel to the brim. Place the pot on top of the gravel and keep water in the saucer at all times to provide humidity around the leaves. The gravel must keep water from entering the pot from the bottom.
Water soil and mulch, not leaves, to cut down on bacterial and fungal diseases.
Flowering and Pollination
Cut off all blossoms for the first six weeks after planting. This forces chili plants to devote their energy to producing more leaves and roots, resulting in larger plants that produce more market-sized fruit.
Blossoms do not develop or open in cold temperatures. Wait for warmer weather. In the fall, fewer blossoms are likely as the weather turns cold.
If flowers aren't being visited by pollinating insects, several finger taps on the stem just behind the flower will cause pollination.
To attract pollinating insects, plant a cluster of marigold, or other brightly colored flowers near, but not necessarily in, the chili garden bed. Also, consider placing a mason bee home in your garden. Instructions for making mason bee homes can be found on the Internet.
The key factor affecting fruit set is night temperature, which ideally should be between 65 and 80 degrees F. Pollinated flowers will not set fruit when the temperature is above 86°F at night, because excessive transpiration causes blossom drop.
Other causes of blossom drop include excessive nitrogen and high winds.
If daytime temperatures exceed 95°F, pollen becomes sterile and fruit set will be reduced.
Bell Peppers often do not set fruit when the temperature is over 90°F. Try growing 'Carmen Sweet Pepper' instead.
Remove chili pods from the plant with a sharp pair of garden pruners or scissors. Avoid pulling or breaking fruit from the plant, because chili branches are easily damaged.
Chilies can be harvested at any time after the fruit have reached the desired size.
Flavor, except for sweetness, is not influenced by maturity. Each type of chili has its own set of aromatic substances that give it a unique flavor. Some have more flavor compounds than others.
Allowing fruit to ripen on the plant will produce a sweeter taste and higher vitamin content, but may lower total pod production.
Chilies do not compete well with weeds. More than 150 types of weeds harbor insect-transmitted viruses that can harm chilies. Weeds also steal nutrients and moisture from the soil.
Remove weeds by hand. Avoid tilling the soil. Cutting roots causes slower plant growth, reduced pod production and Blossom End Rot.
Herbicides should never be used on plants grown for food.
Cutworms, if you have them, can be deterred by placing a paper collar or a 6-inch plastic pot, with the bottom cut out, around the stem and driven into the dirt about one-half inch.
Hornworms and other caterpillars need daily inspection. Pick them off if you find them and dump them in soapy water to kill them.
For Aphids and other insects, use insecticidal soap or a Habanero chili/garlic spray. Avoid pyrethrum insecticides because they can harm the plant. Aphids can also be washed off with a stream of water from a small garden sprayer. Lacewing insect larvae (ant lions) and Ladybugs can also be used to kill aphids, but avoid all insecticides if they are present.
Flea beetles eat small round holes in leaves. There are many species of flea beetle, with potato flea beetles and tobacco flea beetles being the likely culprit for chilies. Organic controls consist of yellow and white sticky traps and diatomaceous earth sprinkled as a dry powder on the plant. Once insects destroy the leaves of a chili plant, the pods will not ripen further.
Grasshoppers will eat the flesh of mildly hot chilies such as Mexibell when just the shoulders of the fruit are red. One defense against grasshoppers is to spray the fruit with garlic-pepper solution before the grasshopper has a chance to eat it. This must be re-applied after every rain. A grasshopper control product that contains Nosema locustae protozoa can be purchased online, for use in early summer, on fields surrounding the garden.
Birds can be excluded using a cage draped with bird netting. The cage enclosing the chili plant should have vertical sides, be about 19" in diameter, and be 4' high. A garden cage at least 8' wide, 8' high, and 16' long will also keep out birds.
Capsaicin, the chemical "heat" in chili, is often measured by Scoville units, originally the proportion of water used to dilute one unit of chili pulp until no heat was detected.
Chili pods have evolved to be consumed by birds, not mammals. The heat that bothers mammals does not affect birds because they have no sensory receptors for capsaicin. Chili seeds pass through bird digestive tracts unscathed but are often destroyed by mammalian digestive tracts.
Bell chilies always remain mild, even when flesh ripens to red.
Mature pods of the non-Bell chilies are more pungent than immature pods. Generally speaking, stressing chili plants increases their pungency. This includes insufficient water and high temperatures during fruit ripening.
The most pungent part of the pod is the placental tissue, or cross wall, which holds the seeds and produces capsaicin. The pod is most pungent at the stem end and less so at the blossom end. The seeds themselves are not very hot but may pick up capsaicin during processing.
Chili Plant Problems
A whitish, tan or translucent area on the fruit, on the side exposed to afternoon sun, caused by excess sunlight and high temperature. Keep pods shaded by the plant's leaves or by afternoon screening.
Blossom End Rot
The tissue on the bottom at the opposite side of the stem has a brown discoloration. Spots elongate and become brown to black, dry and leathery. This is blossom-end rot and occurs when the plant is unable to transport calcium through its tissues because of inadequate moisture. The cause is fluctuating soil moisture due to drought, over watering, or root pruning during cultivation. Desert soils have abundant calcium. Consistent watering every morning with the same amount of water, when the soil has not been soaked by rain, prevents the problem.
Flowers Do Not Develop or Do Not Set Fruit
See the section on Flowering and Pollination, above.
Immature pods drop off the plant. This is caused by excessive nitrogen, heat stress, or insufficient water. Avoid over fertilizing and under watering.
Leaf Surface Dimpled and Not Flat
This is caused by small insects like aphids or thrips, or spider mites, sucking the tissue on the underside of the leaf. This causes the leaf to distort and become wavy or dimpled. Aphids can be gotten rid of by spraying a mild insecticidal soap solution. Another solution is to use predatory insects such as ladybugs, green lacewings, or Phytoseiulus persimilis which attacks spider mites.
Plant Too Small
Chili plants will stay small if they are placed too close together or too close to other large plants, such as tomatoes. Chili plant roots, depending upon pod size, need 3-6 square feet of space to grow.
Pods Stop Turning Red (or Yellow or Orange)
Chili pods need warm temperatures, a bit of direct sunlight and time to turn red. By the start of fall, nighttime temperatures are lower and there are fewer hours of daylight. From this point on, pods may stop turning red quickly and must be left on the plant much longer or be harvested green. If a pod has even a small red spot, however, it can be placed in a bowl with apples or bananas and finish turning red.
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