by Master Gardener Stephanie Wrightson
A whole spectrum of sizes, shapes, colors and heat exist within Capsicum annuum—from bell peppers with no heat, to sweet peppers with mild heat and to chilies (hot peppers). For information about bell and sweet peppers, see “Mild Peppers” on the Sonoma County Master Gardener website.
When using the Scoville scale, be aware that there are many hybrids with similar names and wide variance in heat. For example, ‘Hot Banana’ (15,000 SHU) and ‘Banana’ (900 SHU) are not the same variety, and not all ‘Aji’ peppers are equal in heat. I grew ‘Aji Lemon Drop’ (100,000 SHU) which is a far cry from ‘Aji Chuncho’ (0 SHU) or ‘Aji Chombo’ (500,000 SHU)—notice the similarity in variety names. I’m not growing the ‘Aji Lemon Drop’ again because, while beautiful and prolific at 4-feet tall, it was too hot for my palate. Choose your peppers based on your heat tolerance and taste preference. I like and tolerate a little heat. I grow one sweet pepper for eating raw in salsas and salads (e.g. ‘Italian Pepperoncini’) and one chili to use in cooking to give my dishes a little heat (e.g., ‘Anaheim’—or even ‘Jalapeño’ that I mince and, of which, I only use a portion). But if you inherited genes that enable you to endure blistering heat, try a ‘Ghost Pepper’ or ‘New Mexican Scorpion’ with ratings above 1,000,000 SHU.
Planting advice and cultural and watering requirements of chilies are similar to mild peppers (the article is linked above). One caution is worth repeating: only transplant them outdoors once the daily low temperatures are above 55 degrees. Stunted growth and blossom loss can occur at lower temperatures. I’ve never found chilies to suffer from pests in my garden but you might protect young seedlings with a row cover. Like tomatoes (same family—Solanaceae), irregular watering can lead to blossom end rot. For chilies and other heat-loving crops that require a long, hot growing season, I buy plants. But, if you want to start seed indoors, do so six to eight weeks before your last average frost date and invest in a heating mat made for this purpose (65-75 degrees is the optimal soil temperature for seed germination). If growing chilies in a pot, make sure that the container is at least 8 inches deep and 16 inches in diameter.
Chilies are very high in vitamin C and have only 30 calories in a half cup. If you currently do not cook with chilies, introduce your family to the milder chilies. Add a small amount of finely diced chili to one of your tomato dishes, summer dips or vegetable sautés. Chilies also can be stuffed, baked, roasted, grilled, fried, pickled and canned. Chilies will spice up your meals!