At the end of each growing season, there is always a plant that performed so well that I can’t wait to tell people about it. This year, I have been captivated by a unique seasoning pepper called Aji Cachucha. Much beloved in Cuba and other parts of the Caribbean for its rich, fruity flavor, the plants grew into chest-high bushes that produced crunchy little peppers from late summer until the first frost. I give it five stars, just like every seasoning pepper I have grown.
What Are Seasoning Peppers?
Pepper varieties often are sorted in into sweet and hot, a good thing because hot peppers are not for everyone. A third group, seasoning peppers, also called flavor peppers, are rarely noticeably hot, and they have a depth of fruity flavor not present in bigger garden peppers. In addition to using them fresh, seasoning peppers are easy to dry for use in winter soups or stews, or you can grind the dried peppers into powders. Here are three of my favorites.
Hungarian Paprika (Capsicum annuum)
The most familiar seasoning peppers are paprika peppers, many of which were selected in Hungary and Slovakia 200 years ago. Varieties vary in shape, which can be conical or round, but all have thin walls that make them easy to dry. In addition to its incredible flavor, freshly ground paprika is very high in Vitamin C.
Paprika peppers are the same species as most garden peppers, so expect no surprises when you follow the steps in our Sowing to Harvest video. Keep in mind that paprika and other seasoning peppers are harvested fully ripe, so saving seed from open-pollinated varieties is easy. Do isolate seasoning peppers by growing them more than 12 feet (4 m) from other pepper varieties, especially hot ones. When it comes to cross-pollination, peppers are very frisky plants.
Aji Dulce (Capsicum chinensis)
Aji means pepper in Spanish, and dulce means sweet, so varieties called Aji Dulce are always sweet. There are many versions, including a popular strain from Venezuela that produces slightly wrinkled fruits with a blunt triangular shape. Spring-sown seedlings will load up with peppers in midsummer, which ripen to red from late summer through fall. The two strains I tried matured into small angular bushes that needed serious staking because of their heavy fruit load. Aji Dulce is probably the best seasoning pepper for containers because of its early maturity, balanced growth habit, and bounty of festive fruits. An essential ingredient in the Puerto Rican salsa called sofrito, Aji Dulce peppers also make blissful partners for beans.
Aji Cachucha (Capsicum chinensis)
This vigorous pepper is a local favorite in Cuba and Puerto Rico, and I see why. Also called sweet bonnet, the tough seedlings dig in and start growing quickly, but they don’t start blooming until midsummer, when they suddenly grow tall, and then taller. Upright and bushy, two Aji Cachucha plants grown close together resemble a beautiful summer-blooming shrub.
A steady stream of Aji Cachucha peppers is delightful in the kitchen, because they are the perfect peppers for salads and soups. The crunchy, mostly hollow fruits are easy to clean, and their flattened shape makes cachuchas great vessels for two-bite stuffed peppers, one of my favorite ways to use them.
Both Aji Dulce and Aji Cachucha are classified as Capsicum chinensis, and peppers of this species grow a bit differently from other peppers. The seedlings grow slowly at first, and then quickly pick up speed as the soil warms. The upright, angular bushes have thinner leaves than other peppers, and they sit atop a massive root system. In tropical climes they are grown as short-lived woody perennials. Should you want to try Ben Vanheems’ techniques for overwintering peppers, chinensis peppers are a good choice because of their strong perennial proclivities. In my garden, they are the last peppers to be bothered by deer.
I am far from finished exploring garden-worthy seasoning peppers, which never fail to enrich the garden with great flavor and nutrition, plus the adventure of trying new food crops from other parts of the world. Next year I will grow Mad Hatter, an All-America Selections winner in 2017 that can produce up to 50 fruits per plant, and perhaps I’ll try Trinidad Perfume. Who can resist a seasoning pepper with a name that?