Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
Hendry County Horticulture News
Peppers - An All American Favorite for Centuries
The pepper, native to the tropics of Central and South America, has been cultivated for thousands of years. The history of peppers is truly ancient. Archaeological finds dating 5000 to 7000 year old in Meso America rate the chili as one of the earliest spices known. Aztec farmers cultivated chili peppers and conquered tribes paid tribute with bags full of the peppers. Montezuma, the last of the Aztec emperors, was an avid fan; he started each morning with a smoothie of chocolate and hot chilies.
When Columbus reached the Caribbean in search of the East Indies, he tasted a vegetable being grown by the Indians. Its sharp taste reminded him of the familiar black pepper and so he called this vegetable "pepper," a name which has stuck until the present day. Columbus was incorrect however, as the newly found vegetable was not the pepper of "salt and pepper" (Piper nigrum) but an entirely different genus, Capsicum. He brought peppers back to Spain where they were considered an appealing alternative to the more traditional spice. The popularity of the vegetable was instantaneous. From Spain the cultivation of the pepper soon spread to the rest of the continent and England.
The first English immigrants to the colonies brought the seeds of precious vegetables with them to plant in the New World. By the middle of the 18th century, North Americans had imported many varieties of flowers and vegetables from England. In the late 1700's, John Randolph of Williamsburg, Virginia wrote a treatise on vegetables grown in the New World. He referred to "Capsicum." Records kept at Mount Vernon indicate George Washington grew a "cayan" pepper.
Although they have been cultivated and valued since ancient times, peppers are more popular than ever. Pepper's more recent rise in popularity is due in part to the culinary skills of immigrants from Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, Mexico and Central and South America. They're beautiful, intriguing, potent, and deliciously addictive. Their variety - in size, shape, color, taste, aroma, and potency - is almost as overwhelming as their versatility.
Small, pointed tabasco peppers, plump banana chilies, fiery hot habaneros, spicy paprika, sweet bells and hundreds of other peppers all belong to the genus Capsicum. Peppers are part of the Solanaceae or Nightshade family which contains over 2000 species of ornamental, medicinal and poisonous plants. This makes the pepper a close cousin to tomato. The genus Capsicum includes five cultivated and 25 wild species. The cultivated species include Capsicum annuum, Capsicum frutescens and Capsicum chinense. Most hot, and all sweet varieties of peppers grown in the US are C. annuum, while C. frutescens produces the small, thin-skinned pepper from which tabasco sauce is made. C. chinense is the botanical name for habaneros, the hottest peppers of all.
Peppers grow well locally and are well suited to the home garden. Pepper plants do not take up a lot of garden space and a half dozen plants will provide a family with plenty of peppers. Those with limited space can even grow peppers in containers. Peppers are best planted from August through March in our area.
Peppers will perform best in fertile well drained soil. Incorporate a complete fertilizer or well rotted compost when preparing garden beds to insure adequate nutrition. Be sure to plant in full sun as peppers need plenty of light to blossom and set fruit. Space plants about 2 feet apart. This distance will vary slightly depending on the variety. Rows should be spaced at least 2 feet apart.
Peppers grow rapidly given warm day and night temperatures. During the period of rapid growth be sure to provide adequate water and nutrients. Water the soil before plant foliage begins to droop or show signs of wilting.
If you notice blossoms dropping of your pepper plant, temperature may be the reason. The pepper is a warm season vegetable. The temperature range for fruit set is quite narrow. When nighttime temperatures fall below 60 degrees F. or above 75 degrees F., blossoms are likely to drop and fruit will not set. Daytime temperatures above 90 degrees F. may also inhibit fruit set.
Gardeners may find that pests and diseases cause occasional problems. Inspect plants frequently for signs of insects and disease, early detection and treatment can help prevent damage.
Peppers are the great for people seeking a healthy, nutritious diet. Low in calories, high in Vitamins A and C, peppers are also high in a very important mineral - potassium. Either green or red peppers contains more Vitamin C than a whole orange. A red sweet or hot pepper contains about ten times more vitamin A and double the amount of Vitamin C than an immature green pepper. This savory vegetable might just provide some zest to your gardening experience.
Gene McAvoy is the horticulture agent with the Hendry County Extension Service. Direct your horticulture questions to PO Box 68, LaBelle, FL 33975, e-mail - firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 863-674-4092 or 863-983-1598. You are also welcome to visit the Hendry County Extension Office at 225 Pratt Blvd., LaBelle. Office hours are from 8:00 - 5:00.
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