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.

...73 types of peppers from Dr. Baumler's garden

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.


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.

...Dr. Bamler grew this native chilitepin pepper which rates up to 500,000 SHUs.

DIAL 911!


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).

...Dr. Baumler grew his bumper crop on his driveway in the space it takes to park 2 cars.

Growing Tips:

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 and a few of his prizes.

Learn More!

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.)

17 replies

  1. First of thanks Dr.Dave for all that you do!
    Secondly the presentation was awesome and very well done.
    There has been an amazing interest and excitement for these workshops.
    We look forward to hosting the 2nd workshop on the 18th of September and cant wait to help those with these interests!

  2. Great post, very well written and organized. You really captured much of the exciting story of chili peppers. I have already forwarded it to many friends and colleagues.

    • Thank you so much, Dr. Baumler. I really learned a lot at your presentation, and it was a pleasure to share it.

  3. How gorgeous, your photos make me want to leave Tx and move to Wisconsin. all of your photos are wonderful and I love the peppers.

    Thank you,

    • Thank you, Ellane. I still have the tiny very very hot pepper sitting on my desk next to an acorn. So much of my time these days is spent indoors at the keyboard that I like to keep a few talismans of the outdoors near me. I agree that peppers are visually vivid as well as intense of taste.
      Happy, hot pepper holidays,

    • Hi Carlos,
      I don’t have any pepper seeds. I haven’t started growing hot peppers, I just reported on someone who does.
      There has been continued interest in the pepper post, so I’m going to get in touch with Dr. David Baumler for an update and do a pepper post #2 soon.
      Good luck finding the seeds you are looking for,

  4. I would very much like to make your acquaintance and pick your brain about peppers; not in the mad scientist brain picking way, but in the you are terribly knowledgeable on a topic that is of daily importance to me way.
    Thanks for the calcium tip – I didn’t know that, but I suspect a lot of my success with peppers is from the copious amounts of egg shells that make their way into my compost.
    Accidental happy ending.
    I’ve shared this link.
    Thanks so much,
    Keepin’ it Lupi!

    • Hi Tina,
      Glad to be useful. Peppers are beautiful plants and nutritious and tasty. It seems like a good topic on which to go wild.

    • Hi Ian, I can’t list all the peppers, but I hope to post soon with a pepper update.

  5. I have grown and eaten all types of hot peppers including the ghost I,Agee the ghost is the hottest but I have become used to cutting them up and cooking them together in oil and then using them on pizza sometimes my mouth gets hot but i always get over it quick.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Bill. For me, a little bit of hot pepper goes a long way, but I find the diversity and intensity possible in peppers to be fascinating.

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