The world of the chili pepper is a bit of a macho one: Who can grow the hottest? And, perhaps more entertainingly, who’s prepared to eat it! It’s a brave world, with evermore painful ways conjured up to pack as much heat as possible into chili varieties.
Chili growing’s expanding fan base comes at a time when more of us are seeking increasingly exotic and hotter food choices; an article by ABC News cites a 15% rise in the use of the word ‘spicy’ on fast food menus in the two years to 2012. Lured in by the fiery fruits and the promise of a spicy nirvana, it’s no surprise that chili peppers have become the number one choice for gardeners on a mission to give their hobby something of a racy edge.
Like many popular fruits and vegetables, the chili pepper boasts many hundreds of varieties to choose from. The mild end of the spectrum starts with fruits barely warmer than a sweet or bell pepper. Turn the heat dial a few clicks to the right and you’ll enjoy a flushing of the cheeks and perhaps the need for refreshment. Cranking it up further induces short, rapid breaths and an intense stinging sensation in the mouth. Turn the dial to maximum heat level and you’re in the realms of the chili head, those brave (or foolish!) champions of skull-blasting heat who actively seek out its side effects: wildly staring and watering eyes, the head swing of disbelief – as if trying to shake off the heat – and sweats that move from beads to torrents!
What many chili enthusiasts may not realise is that chili heat is, quite literally, addictive, releasing waves of feel-good endorphins that keep us coming back for more. The tongue-tingling heat is caused by the compound capsaicin, which also happens to be very good for us, helping to lower blood pressure and, according to some studies, slow metabolic decline.
Hot chilies give a sensation of pleasure mixed with just a dash of alarm. Chilies are the gastronomic equivalent of a rollercoaster ride; it’s that kick of adrenalin and the flirt with danger in a safe and controlled way that proves so irresistible.
The Scoville Scale
Chili pepper heat can be measured by its very own scale: the Scoville Scale. The scale was devised by American chemist Wilbur Scoville, who found a way to record the level of heat in each dry mass of foodstuff. Peppers lacking capsaicin – your standard sweet pepper – measure zero on the scale. Your average Jalapeno is about 2,500 to 5,000 Scoville Heat Units (SHU), with both Scotch Bonnets and Habaneros spicing in anywhere between 100,000 to 325,000 SHU.
The hottest chilies in the world now break the million SHU mark. These are the sorts of fruits you need to wear gloves to handle (and never, ever touch your eyes after handling them – you’ve been warned!). The current holder of the title of world’s hottest chili is the ‘Carolina Reaper’, bred by the aptly named Ed Currie. The South Carolina farmer is reported to have invested $12,000 getting his chili registered in the Guinness Book of Records. At a whisker over 1.5million SHU, his chili is 500 times hotter than Tabasco and boasts a similar heat intensity to pepper spray. Still, with pure capsaicin topping out at 16million SHU, the ‘Carolina Reaper’ can’t rest on its laurels.
Growing Hot Chilli Peppers
Chili peppers are great fun to grow. First off, make sure you give them the sunniest spot in the garden. In temperate climates they’ll give their best if you can offer them some sort of protection – a greenhouse, cold frame or tunnel for example. Don’t use cold water on plants, but instead allow the water to reach air temperature to prevent shocking the plant’s roots. This is particularly important for the seedlings.
Encourage bushier plants by removing the growing point of the young plants once they reach about 30cm (1ft) tall – new branches will sprout from further down the stem to produce a more balanced and sturdy plant.
Feed peppers as soon as they come into flower with a high potash feed, such as tomato fertilizer. In dry climates, or for plants growing in greenhouses, you may want to raise humidity levels by spraying plants with water or damping down (watering) greenhouse paths. This will help the flowers to set fruit. Once they are fruiting, pick them as soon as they are ready to encourage more flowers and fruits to follow.
Watch out for aphids. Rub off localized attacks with your fingers or blast them off with a jet of water. Encourage predators such as ladybugs and hoverflies (syrphid flies) with insect-attracting flowers .
Having previously wimped out at merely moderately warm chilies, this year I’m looking to try something a little feistier. Who knows, maybe I’ll become a chili head too! Please share your tips for growing extra-hot chilies below, because I’ll need a little help to crank up the heat.