Twenty one varieties of New Mexico chile peppers, Capsicum annuum, will be on sale on May 18-19 at the CSU Master Gardener Plant Sale held at Denver’s Harvard Gulch Park. Grown from the University of New Mexico’s Chile Pepper Institute’s (CPI) seeds, the fruits range from mild and flavorful to bold, smoky and hot.
The plants will mature in late summer and grow well in Colorado conditions. Mild selections include ‘Conquisstador’ (nonpungent, smooth fruit, strong vines) and ‘Trick or Treat’ (no heat with habanero flavor). ‘NuMex Heritage 6-4’ (award winning fruit, great for green chili), ‘NuMex Joe. E. Parker’ (high yield, excellent for red and green chili) and ‘NuMex Sandia Select’ (high heat level) are among the hot cultivars we’ll have on hand. Find the complete plant list here.
Read on to learn more about New Mexico chile origins, research and growing techniques.
Chiles are native to South America, where they are perennial shrubs. In the United States, with few exceptions such as southern California and parts of Florida and Texas, the plants are grown as annuals. It has been said that New Mexico is to chile peppers what Napa Valley is to wine grapes. The area’s arid climate, hot summers and soil make chile growing conditions ideal. Given Colorado’s similar conditions, the plants grow well here, too.
Heat and flavor of chile varieties vary greatly and have been studied extensively. In 1912, mild-mannered appearing Wilbur Scoville developed a system for measuring the feisty flavor of chiles that is still in use today.
According to the CPI, “The heat level of a chile pepper is expressed in Scoville Heat Units (SHU). Scoville Heat Units are intended for comparison only because heat levels can fluctuate greatly from location, and even from pod to pod on the same plant. Chile peppers range in heat from 0 SHU (Bell Pepper) to more than 2,000,000 SHU (Trindad Moruga Scorpion).”
Chile peppers contain chemical compounds called capsaicinoids. When ingested, capsaicinoids send a message to our brains that the pepper is hot. In large doses capsaicin can burn and irritate humans and mammals. As birds do not have the brain receptors to register this heat sensation, they feel none of the adverse effects of the compound. Because of this, birds are responsible for spreading wild pepper seeds.
The seeds are often, but erroneously, touted as the hottest part of the pepper. In reality, the white flesh near the seeds contain the most capsaicin. When cooking with peppers, leave or remove the ribs depending on your sensitivity.
Beyond heat, chiles offer a wide range of complex flavors. Dr Paul Bosland of the CPI identified five heat profile components. Chile lovers have surely experienced these sensations:
- Development: Is the heat sensation felt immediately or 5, 15 or 30 seconds later?
- Duration: How long does the heat linger?
- Location: Where is the heat sensation felt? Lips, front of mouth, tip of tongue, throat?
- Feeling: Is it a pin-prick sensation or an overall sensation or does it coat the area?
- Intensity: Measured by Scoville Heat Units and commonly called mild, medium or hot fruit.
If you’re eager to plant your chiles right now, a word of caution. Plants should be hardened off after the danger of frost by exposing them to outdoor temperatures for longer periods of time daily. Plant in the ground when daytime temperatures hover around 70 degrees and over night temperatures are reliably above 55 degrees.
Before planting, incorporate compost to fortify the soil. Throughout the season, use a balanced fertilizer (5-10-5 or 10-10-10). Watch for the inevitable dry spells as plants need at least 2 inches of moisture a week, especially after fruit sets. Night time temperature is critical for flowers to set and is ideally between 65-80 degrees.
What’s your favorite chile pepper? Please share in the comments!
For more information:
“What’s So Hot About Chili Peppers” Smithsonian Magazine, April 2009
Posted by Linda McDonnell, a Denver County Master Gardener