This has been a great summer for growing peppers in Wisconsin, and no one knows this better than Dr. David Baumler: by day — a post-doctoral researcher at the Genome Center of Wisconsin, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and by night and weekend — a master pepper gardener.
Dr. Baumler spoke on the history and evolution of peppers at Wednesday Nite @ the Lab, where UW researchers share their findings with the public.
Where did they come from?
Chili peppers have been heating up food around the globe for hundreds of years, but the flavor volcano first erupted in Bolivia. We know this is ground zero because this is where we can still find all the native species growing in the wild. These original chili peppers are very small, and red. They grow just one tiny pepper per tall, straight stem — nothing like what we think of as a pepper plant today.
How did chili peppers come to fill the world?
Peppers began their diaspora in the bellies of birds. To birds, these first, fiery fruits looked like anyother tasty red berries, and because birds lack the receptors in their tongues that tell mammals they are eating something hot, birds don’t feel the fire.
Pepper historians speculate that peppers evolved their particular color to attract birds (who then fly the seeds great distances and even deposit them in their new digs with a bit of fertilizer) and evolved their heat to discourage mammals, who digest pepper seeds.
Birds transported pepper all the way north to Mexico (Capsicum annum, which includes bell peppers and jalapenos) and northeast to the Caribbean Islands (Capsicum chinese, which includes the hottest peppers like haga and habenero), As humans settled in these areas, they cultivated chili peppers.
Now we all know what happened in 1492 – Columbus wandered about spreading confusion.
He was searching for a short cut to India and Indian spices. Instead he bumbled onto the New World and stumbled on peppers, misnamed them (they are in no way related to peppercorns) and brought them back to Spain proclaiming them the new pepper.
Within 100 years (which was an astonishingly short time in those days) chili peppers had spread around the world.
1. At last there was a spice that people could grow for themselves in many climates – making it the first spice of the masses.
2. Easily cultivated, they were quickly reformed as a bushy plant with the peppers growing down and hidden by foliage to hide them from birds.
GOOD AND GOOD FOR YOU!
Chili peppers are very nutritious, being cholesterol free, low in calories and high in vitamins A and C. The average bell pepper has 5 times as much vitamin C as an orange.
Most people prize them for a different C – Capsaicin, which is the compound that makes them hot.
NEVER EAT A PEPPER THAT YOU DON’T KNOW ABOUT.
Most people think the heat in peppers is coming from the seeds, but actually it is coming from the placenta, a membrane that surrounds the seeds. So if you are taste testing a new pepper, the safest way is to start eating it from the tip, which is the farthest spot from the seeds and their placenta.
Wilber Scoville, a pharmacist invented a way to measure the heat of peppers in 1912, so the term we still use is Scoville heat units (SHU). This is the number of times a drop of chili extract must be diluted in what before it is not detected. Though pepper’s fiery compounds are now measured with high-performance liquid chromatography, the results are still described in Scoville’s units.
Jalapeño peppers rate 3000 – 6000 SHU
Cayenne and Tabasco rate 6000 – 80,000
Chilitepin, habenero, and Thai hot peppers (one whose name translates as Kick of the Horse) rate from 80,000 to 500,000 SHU
The hottest pepper known in the world is the Indian ghost pepper, which clocks in at 1,000,000 SHU.
If you find you have eaten a pepper that is too hot for you, your best bet is milk or another dairy product. This can cool it a bit (i.e. sour cream with Mexican dishes and yogurt with Indian cuisine).
1. Start the seeds early. Peppers come from tropical climes and like a long season. Hotter varieties take longer to germinate. Late February or early March is a good time to start your seedlings.
2. Don’t put them outside till the season has truly warmed. They need days when the temperature stays above 70 F and nights above 55 F. If you jump the gun and plant them in cold ground, they will be stressed and may not produce much.
3. They also need a fair amount of pampering. Fertilize them every 1-2 weeks and water during dry spells. Dr. Baumler recommends a fertilizer high in calcium. The hotter the pepper, the more calcium they require. This, he says, can triple their yield.
Dr. Baumler will be giving a Pepper Workshop Saturday Sept 18 from 10:30 a.m. to noon at Paradigm Gardens, 4501 Helgesen Drive, Madison, WI. This workshop will focus on preservation techniques, including drying peppers, making hot sauces and salsas and safe canning methods.
The fee is $20 and includes an interactive presentation, appetizers and information you need to develop safe recipes, as well as information on the new “Pickling Law” in Wisconsin, which lets home producers sell their own canned items at farmers markets. Work shoppers will take home a jar of one of Dr. Baumler’s salsas.
If you want to go, call (608) 241-3800 to sign up.
I wish I could go, but I’m registered for the Train Ride into Tiffany Wildlife Area in the Lower Chippewa River Delta next weekend. (No doubt, you will be reading about that adventure next week.)
Categories: TALES FROM OUR 44 ACRES