Originating in the tropics of south America, Chillies have permeated cuisine worldwide. There are five domesticated species:
- Capsicum annuum is the most widely grown, encompassing both sweet and chilli peppers
- Capsicum baccatum is more commonly known as Aji types
- Capsicum chinense includes the hottest varieties
- Capsicum frutescens known as Tabasco
- Capsicum pubescens with its distinctive purple seeds
The pungency of chillies is measured in Scoville units (named after an American chemist), increasing from zero in sweet peppers to 16,000,000 for pure capsaicin, the heat inducing chemical in chillies. The concentration varies by cultivar and also growing conditions. Their effect relies on personal taste too.
Choosing your variety or cultivar depends not only on your tolerance to heat but your culinary use. They come in all shapes and sizes; short and fat, long and thin, spicy, smoky or fruity. Mostly added for their pungent flavour, the smaller, thin walled, spicy types are used in Far Eastern and Asian cuisine. The fleshier types are fried or stuffed, or added to salads. The colour of the fruits varies with cultivar and maturity. Most are green unripe although some start yellow or purple ripening red although a few turn yellow, orange or brown. Their growing habit varies too, some are suitable grown as pot plants, others are bushy or tall and lanky, needing support.
Although perennial in their natural home, Capsicum are grown as annuals in the UK being sensitive to frost and cold weather. If you have a well lit, frost free space it is possible to over winter indoors. Otherwise start sowing early throughout January, although C annuum varieties can be sown to end of February as these plants mature earlier.
Sow seeds in fine seed compost, covering to depth of 5mm. Keep at a temperature of 27oC, do not let them dry out. Germination can be relatively slow, but once seedlings emerge keep in good light to prevent spindly growth. When big enough (3 or 4 true leaves) prick out into 10cm pots of multipurpose compost. Plant them deeply, keep warm (min 18oC) and water regularly. After about 8 weeks, transplant into their final growing space whether outside in the ground or into pots, preferably under cover.
Generally trouble free of pests and diseases, peppers are hungry plants and need regular watering and feeding with a liquid fertiliser. Support tall or laden plants. Pick the fruits regularly; as you remove them, the plant will produce more.