Plant Answers  >  An Introduction to Peppers

An Introduction to Peppers

Capsicums: The International 2016 Herb of the Year

NOTE: This is intended to provide you with information about Capsicums and some hints when working with them. It is not intended to show you how to grow them. That information is already available at:
Capsicums are called by many names around the world. Common names for Capsicums include chilli, chili, aji, paprika, capsicum, and pepper. The word Capsicum comes from the Greek word meaning “to bite”.

Most Capsicums originated from an area that includes southern Brazil, Bolivia, northern Argentina and Paraguay. Some were domesticated at least 6,000 years ago and spread through trade, going thru Mexico into Southwest America and from central America to what are now Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti and Dominican Republic. As you have probably observed from finding volunteer chili petine plants (also called chiltepine in non-Texas areas of the country) growing in your yard, they are also spread by birds. That’s why they are sometimes called bird peppers. (Birds don’t have the receptors to feel the heat from capsicum and like the color and nutrients of ripe red chili petines.)

On his first voyage to the New World, Columbus found something that looked like pepper but was much stronger. He brought back the pungent spice. It was not the pepper (Piper nigrum) known in the old world but Capsicum spp, beginning the spread of the plant throughout the world. During the 1500’s the Portuguese spread the spice through their trading in Africa and the Malabar coast of India, eventually arriving in China and Korea.

While there are only five domesticated Capsicums, there are also about 25 capsicum species that have not been domesticated. The five species that have been domesticated are C. annuum, C, chinense, C. frutescens , C. baccatum and C. pubescens. The most common species grown commercially in the United states is C. annuum which includes some familiar ones such as Bell, Jalapeno, Anaheim, Serrano, Poblano, Cayenne, Cubanelle, chili petine, Pimento, Rio Grande Gold and many others. C. chinense includes Habanero, Scotch Bonnet and Trinidad Scorpion peppers among others. The main pepper in the C. frutescens is the Tabasco pepper, the only member of this species commonly grown outside the tropics and were brought into Louisiana from Tabasco, Mexico. And as they say, “The rest is history.”

The heat of the capsicum is concentrated in the placenta which is the inner membranes, not the seeds or flesh. The heat can be transferred to the seeds due to the seeds being near the placenta. This heat comes from chemicals called capsaicinoids . (Capsaicin and dihydrocapsaicin are the main two found in peppers.) These chemicals can cause blisters on the skin. So, be sure to wear gloves and be careful not to touch sensitive parts of your body. The capsaicinoids are barely soluble in water but very soluble in fat and alcohol. Therefore, it is better to drink milk, yogurt or beer than water to quench the heat of peppers.

NOTE: Washing your hands won’t necessarily help before going to the bathroom IF you didn’t wear gloves while processing peppers. SO, wear gloves while processing peppers. Trust me guys, it is NOT fun if you don’t follow this simple rule.

The pepper heat is normally described in Scoville Units. The Scoville Scale was developed in 1912 by Wilbur Scoville to measure the pungency (aka heat) of chili peppers. The heat rating of peppers was determined by diluting a pepper extract until the "heat" is no longer observed by a panel of tasters (usually five). Needless to say, it was very subjective. For examples of Scoville Heat Units (or SHUs):. A Bell Pepper normally has a Scoville rating of 0 SHU. A Jalapeno Pepper has a Scoville rating between 2,500 and 5,000 SHU . That means a sample of Jalapeno juice would need to be diluted 2,500 to 5,000 times to reduce its heat to that of a bell pepper. NOTE: The Carolina Reaper averages 1,569,3000 SHU and is currently considered to be the hottest chili pepper and is a hybrid cross between a Ghost Pepper and a Red Habanero.

The newer and more precise way to determine the heat of a pepper is to use High Performance Liquid Chromatography or HPLC. They identify the amount of heat-producing chemicals (i.e. capsaicinoids) and then calculate the pepper’s relative capacity to produce a sensation of heat. The HPLC results are reported in American Spice Trade Association (ASTA) pungency units, not in Scoville units. An ASTA measurement of one part capsaicin per million corresponds to about 15 Scoville units. Therefore, to convert ASTA units to Scoville Units (SHU), multiply the ASTA number by 15. This is an approximate conversion. Some people believe that this conversion is about 20 – 40% lower than what the Scoville testing would have given. (I’ll take their word for it and be willing to accept the variance rather than being the volunteer to taste the FIRST Scoville dilution of the Carolina Reaper!)

Pepper Hints, Ideas and Other Trivia:

Germination and Production

To improve the % germination, put the seeds in a bowl of water. Get rid of all the seeds that float; only plant the ones that sank to the bottom. (The ones that float don’t have embryos or are damaged or only partial seeds.)

For the best germination, the seeds should be grown at temperatures of 70 Degrees or more.

Not all pepper seeds germinate at the same time. Some of the exotics may take 5 or more weeks.

Use collars to protect seedlings from cutworms.

Effect of temperature on bloom drop

Flowers drop when the nighttime temperatures are above 75o. (NOTE: Fruit do not set when the temperature is below 60oF or above 90oF. ) …. pgs 48-49, Peppers 2nd Ed

Even without temperature issues, pepper plants have a tendency to abort buds, flowers and young fruit. But, under the right conditions you will still get plenty of peppers.

To improve yields

Pinch off flowers for the first several weeks to allow energy to go into producing a stronger plant rather than fruit production.

Based on various research sources, it appears the highest germination percentage is from seeds that were harvested from the earliest pods that reached its deepest hue, whether red, yellow or orange.

Increase yields by picking pods when the immature green pods are as large as they are going to get.

If the stem is easy to remove from the plant, the pepper is ready. However to increase production, remove the pods earlier by cutting the peppers off with scissors to prevent the brittle branches from breaking off.

You don’t need or want the pods to dry on the vine if you want to increase production.


Peppers need adequate amounts of most major and minor nutrients. They need Nitrogen and phosphorous. However, too much nitrogen and you’ll have a great looking plant with no fruit.

Use a balanced fertilizer (i.e., 10 – 10 – 10 or 5 – 10 – 5).

Mycorrhizal fungi can help increase nutrient (especial phosphorous) uptake ang pepper growth.


Cross-pollination is supposedly not a problem the first year with peppers. Supposedly it does not affect the taste or potency of the pods. However, it can affect the next generation.

Be careful about using seeds of one of your plants next year because they cross-pollinate very easy.

Seeds from this years mild peppers may result in much hotter peppers next year if cross-pollinated by insects with a very hot pepper.

Use commercially grown transplants or seeds from reliable companies next year rather than seeds from your last years plants due to the high incidence of cross pollination that occurs without special efforts being taken to prevent cross-pollination.

C. annum C. baccatum C. chinense C. frutescens C. pubescens
C. annum P S P S X
C. baccatum S P S S X
C. chinense P S P S X
C. frutescens S S S P X
C. pubescens X X X X P
P = crosses prolifically S = crosses sporadically X = does not cross
NOTE: C. baccatum crosses only result in sterile hybrids.
adapted from The Chile Pepper Encyclopedia, pg 55 by Dave DeWitt.


It is recommended to wear rubber gloves when processing hot peppers.

Do NOT touch sensitive areas of your body after handling hot peppers IF you did not wear gloves. (If you do not follow this suggestion, you will never forget to follow it in the future.)

If your hands are burning from not using gloves, rub the burning areas with rubbing alcohol because capsaicin is soluble in alcohol. Milk might also help.

Make your own crushed red pepper by using dried Cayenne peppers. Just break the pods up by hand or use a mortar. (Remember to wear gloves.)

A coffee grinder also works great for turning dried peppers into coarse ground or powered peppers. (Just remember the rule about gloves and consider wearing a mask. Also, consider grinding the peppers outside or at the very least near your kitchen vent which should be on high.)

To reinforce the previous paragraph, when grinding dried peppers in a coffee grinder, consider having the kitchen vent on, wearing a mask and/or doing it outside. Outside might be best. You will get in much less trouble with your spouse and kids. NOTE: I recommend having a separate coffee grinder devoted to spices especially if you will be grinding peppers. You DON’T want your wife to have COFFEE SURPRISE the first thing in the morning … makes for a bad day for you.

Because of its set of aromatic substances, each pepper variety has it’s own unique flavor.

Flavor has to do with taste, NOT heat. Using a different species or variety than a recipe calls for can change the taste of the food.

Fresh ripe chile petines in white vinegar make a great pepper sauce to use on greens (spinach, swiss chard, mustard or tender greens). It is also adds a nice kick to pinto beans and cornbread. Another good and different pepper sauce flavor uses slices of habenaro (without placenta) instead of chili petines.

Our experience has been that homemade frozen slices of jalapeno rings used instead of fresh sliced jalapenos on nachos seem to make the nachos hotter.

Pepper “HEAT”

For peppers, pungency has to do with spiciness or hotness, not flavor.

Immature pods are not as pungent as mature ones.

Over or under watering will stress plants and increase their pungency.

Pepper pods of a particular variety of pepper can have different pungencies, even on the same plant.

To help reduce pungency, remove the placenta (the inner white part of the pepper). It contains the capsaicin glands which contain the main heat of the pepper.

If the peppers you ate were too hot for you, water is NOT the answer. Try milk or (if you are over 21) alcohol … a medicinal application to dissolve the capsaicin, not getting drunk. Next time work up to that heat.

Book References:
  • Andrews, Jean. 1995. Peppers: The Domesticated Capsicums, New Edition, Austin: University of Texas Press
  • Andrews, Jean. 1999. The Pepper Trail. Denton: The University of North Texas Press
  • Bosland, Paul W and Votava, Eric J. 2012 Peppers: Vegetable and Spice Capsicums, 2nd Edition. Croydon: CPI Group (UK) Ltd
  • Brat, Matt. 2014 The Pepper Scale. Wilton Manors, FL: WeaverMarked
  • Dewitt, Dave 1999 The Chile Pepper Encyclopedia. New York: William Morrow and Co., Inc.
  • Dewitt, Dave and Bosland, Paul W. The Complete Chile Pepper Book. Portland: Timber Press.
  • Dewitt, Dave and Bosland, Paul W. The Pepper Garden. Berkley: Ten Speed Press
  • Bosland, Paul W. and Walker, Stephanie. Growing Chilies in New Mexico.

Online References: (NOTE: These are only a few of those available. Just be sure to use reputable references such as Universities, Extension agencies and Master Gardener sources)

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