Monday, November 28, 2011

Capsicum fantasticum

Peppers, to me, exude tropical heritage. Those tiny fleshy flowers and deep shiny green leaves shout, "I'm from a warm, wet forest!" I am no expert on peppers, not like my blog-friend Michelle, but I've learned a lot in the past few years I've been saving seed. Since it is important to not only know the variety one is growing when saving seed, but also the species in order to prevent cross-pollination, I picked up a few tricks to identify the four most commonly grown species. I hope someone else may find this information helpful.

Capsicum annuum: C. annuum holds most of the peppers with which we're most familiar. Our sweet bell peppers fall in this species, as do Anaheims and jalapenos, serranos and pasillas. Many people never grow anything other than annuums in their gardens. Annuums have white flowers with yellow or blue stamens and foliage that is usually smooth, though can occasionally be softly downy. The foliage is typically dark green, but there are variegated varieties; in fact, if a plant is variegated, it is likely a C. annuum. There is a huge variety in flavor within this species, from completely sweet to searingly hot. This year, I grew Fish, Chile Rayado, Big Jim, Sweet Cherry, Pimento, Lipstick, and a couple other annuums that weren't as successful as these reliable varieties.

Capsicum baccatum: I am biased. Capsicum baccatum is my favorite pepper species. The plants reliably overwinter for me, get huge (tree-like, folks!), and have bright green leaves and pretty, yellow- or greenish-brown-dotted flowers. I gave a coworker some seeds for Capeau de Frade, she planted one of her seedlings in our school garden, and the plant is three years old now and four feet tall. The three varieties I have growing are all on the milder side, though if you pop the whole thing in your mouth as I have done occasionally while working in the garden, you might find yourself sweating on a cold day. I enjoy the tropical fruit flavor of the baccatums as well as their excellent crunch factor. I have Capeau de Frade, Dedo de Moca, and some kind of orange-form Aji Panca (mislabeled seeds? a happy accident because I love this plant) that are each three years old and still growing mightily in a large pot. I cut them back in late winter so they'll send up nice growth with a dose of sunshine, spring warmth, and liquid seaweed. I am very interested in learning more about this species and exploring more varieties within it.

Capsicum chinense: C. chinense is home to the world's hottest peppers. Ghost pepper, Bhut Jolokia, all the habaneros, and others are C. chinenses. But they're not all hot. Cheiro de Recife and the like have the same citrusy, perfumy flavor without the heat (or at least not as much of it), and are gorgeous fruits, shiny and bright colored. The flowers are small and white, pale yellow, or pale green with blue stamens. The leaves tend to be bright green and slightly savoyed. These peppers are what give Caribbean food its kick. I have a harder time getting this species growing healthily than other other species, but I always grow a couple because the fragrance is impossible to beat. This year, I am growing Roberto's Cuban Seasoning and Cheiro de Recife.

Capsicum pubescens: This is the first year I have grown C. pubescens and I have not yet tasted it. However, despite my lack of familiarity with it, I'd have an easy time identifying it anywhere. Not only does its hairyness live up to its Latin name, but unlike any other species, it has large-ish purple flowers. Purple flowers! And the fruit is thick-fleshed like a mini-bell pepper, but very hot. Also unique to this species are the dark brown to black seeds. I don't know if there is much difference between varieties within this species, but the variety I'm growing is called Red Rocoto.

I'd love to hear about others' favorite peppers. Or, do you have a favorite species I haven't covered here? Spread the spicy knowledge, my friends.


Sarah said...

That pepper is smiling at me!

Stefaneener said...

I love my overwintered Padron, but haven't branched out much. I love your identifying comments.

say what? said...

I'm hoping to have a small plastic hoop-house in the next couple of years to over-winter pepper plants in. I'm lucky to get any of them to ripen before a frost takes them out. This season we had snow in October!

As much as your peppers have me licking my lips I have to ask, What about the garlic? Did you plant any this fall, or do you plant in the spring? What cultivars are you planting?

Michelle said...

You highly exaggerate my chile pepper expertise, but thank you! :)

I agree with you, the baccatum species is wonderful for so many reasons and is a favorite of mine but I do love mild chinense peppers as well. Rocotillo is my absolute favorite, it is sweet and incredibly aromatic, fantastic dried. Unfortunately my plants didn't do well this year. The chinense species is just so not suited to my climate, this year they just refused to do much of anything, it was just too cold. Even the baccatums pouted this year but at least I got some peppers (what I could save from the rats - grrrr). I hope that the new plants will overwinter so that I might get a better crop next year.

My two favorite baccatums that I've grown so far are Aji Angelo and Christmas Bell, both of them are sweet to mildly spicy and are somewhat aromatic and both of them are very hardy. I really liked the Aji Santa Cruz peppers but they are very late to produce and don't overwinter here very well. A new one for me this year is Rainforest, somewhat similar in shape to the Christmas Bell but a little smaller and thinner fleshed and more spicy. I'll see how it fares through the winter. I also have another new baccatum that is doing well so far, Aji Habanero, it's a small orange chile, very prolific, good aromatic flavor, and totally sweet - not a trace of heat. The only thing that I don't like about it is that it is incredibly seedy, the pods are literally stuffed with seeds.

You did a very nice job of describing the different species of chiles and such good photos too!

Carrie said...

I was given a ghost pepper seedling this year and after researching its primary use (to keep away elephants in Indian villages, it would seem) I thought it might be an interesting specimen plant. Would you believe it has been the most prolific thing in my garden? I have had over 200 peppers from that one plant! Perhaps more important - I haven't had a single elephant in my garden all summer...

Christina said...

Hi all! Sorry I was so slow responding to comments. We had no electricity for a few days. But, we're back on the grid now!

Sarah: Hee hee.

Stefaneener: Peppers are fun to branch out in--there are so many different flavors, and the colors are wonderful.

Say What?: Yes! I have my garlic in, lots and lots of it. I have a few new-to-me varieties this year, and have planted a lot more of a few varieties I fell in love with last year. I think I have 17 cultivars this year, lots of creoles and marbled purple stripes, and a few artichokes. Only one Asiatic (Japanese) because I have just fallen so hard for the Creoles and Marbled Purple Stripes. I hope you get your hoop house sooner rather than later--I'd love to see what you grow in it.

Michelle: You know, if you have seeds of any of those (except Chrismas Bell--I have that!), I'd love to give them a try. I'll check your site to see what seeds you have available.

Carrie: Hardy-har-har. Ha! What do you do with all those beautiful, impossible to eat peppers?

Will said...

The rocotos or manzanos love cool weather, and will overwinter in places where others won't. However, if the weather is too hot they won't set fruit. I had great luck with them in coastal northern California, but didn't get a good crop until i planted them in pretty shady conditions in Los Angeles. As far as varieties, some seem to have a more fruity flavor, some are very hot. I have grown an elongated orange type, and a squat yellow type. Some are much more prolific than others.

Allotment Blogger said...

This year I grew capsicum annum Gourmet - I don't know whether it didn't like the lower light levels in the UK or if we had bad seed but it was pretty unproductive: four peppers on two plants ...

We also grew corno de toro which was prolific but a bit too hot for salads

Next year it's back to Choco from the annums for us, not sure what to try from the baccatums in 2012 though.

Alit said...
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