Arlene Hamilton

Master Gardener

You are probably as tired of talking about the weather as I am. So let’s talk about a wonderful little plant that loves the long hot summers of the Southwest and inspires a passion around the world. Chile peppers (Capsicum spp.) are favored in our gardens, on our plates and even in our medicine cabinets.

Like beans, corn and avocados, chile peppers are a New World plant, found in South America by Christopher Columbus as he searched for a route to India, home of the black pepper (Piper nigrum), the most expensive spice in the world at that time. 

Columbus returned to Europe with the holds of his ships filled with plants, seeds and peppers. Within a very short time chile peppers had spread throughout the world as their flavor and heat contributed to bland tasting diets.  Even the poorest could easily cultivate this inexpensive flavor enhancer.

There are hundreds of varieties of chile peppers in many shapes, sizes, colors and flavors, from sweet to searingly pungent, hot and sweet at the same time, green and vegetal, earthy and fruity. 

Some favorites for the Texas garden are habanero, Anaheim, Hungarian banana, cayenne, Tabasco, Thai and of course jalapeño.  

The tiny piquin has been brought to my garden by the birds that frequent the tender perennial plant in the fall then deposit the seeds throughout the area. 

It is a very fiery hot pepper that makes a wonderful condiment when the ripe peppers are added to a bottle of vinegar, aged, and then enjoyed splashed over salads, eggs and vegetables.

September and October are peak times for harvesting chiles from your garden or shopping the local farmers’ market. 

My very favorite chile is the Hatch, grown in Hatch, New Mexico. We first came across this large, mild to hot pepper as we crossed southeastern Colorado several years ago. 

The markets, roadside stands and parking lots lining State Highway 50 boasted large tumble roasters grilling up bushels of Hatch chiles.  You could catch the aroma long before you saw the grill. 

I have already made one pilgrimage to Central Market for the first batch and will surely return for more before their short season is over.

Once you get past the pain of cleaning and seeding chiles you are rewarded with not only the wonderful flavor but also the healthful benefits of chiles. 

They contain large amounts of vitamins C and A. 

By weight, fresh peppers have about three times as much vitamin C as oranges and as much vitamin A as carrots.

The capsaicin oil that causes your fingers to burn while cleaning them is being studied as a medicine. 

Capsaicin is the active ingredient of creams for painful skin and nerve conditions including shingles and neuralgia.

 It is being tested in cream form for diabetic neuropathy, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Pepper plants should be planted in the early summer after the soil has become warm. They grow best in loamy soil with organic matter and a little greensand added. Good drainage is important. Water frequently and feed once or twice during the season.

My favorite way to preserve peppers is to blacken the skin on the grill, remove the black and seeds then layer flat between sheets of waxed paper.  Place these in zip topped freezer bags and freeze. 

These packets lie flat, taking up very little room.  A few pieces make the base for Chile rellenos casserole, chopped in salsas and chili, or added to all foods needing a bit of a kick.

Arlene Hamilton is an Ellis County Master Gardener, a Texas Rainwater Harvesting Specialist and guest columnist in the Daily Light. For further information, contact the Ellis County Master Gardeners at the Texas AgriLife Extension Service, 701 South Interstate 35E, Suite 3, Waxahachie, or call 972-825-5175 or e-mail: ellis-tx@tamu.edu.