I've always found hot peppers a bit of a hard sell. If I lived in the southwest US or Mexico, maybe it wouldn't be so. But in my little neck of the woods crowds of people, including chefs, don't exactly rush in to get them.
But, typical me, I continue to grow lots and lots of them simply because I like growing them. Wise business move? Maybe not. But what the heck, you've gotta have fun in the garden! And with the stunningly brilliant yellow, oranges, reds and purples-what's not fun?
Better yet, of course is if you can convince some unsuspecting friend to do a little taste test to check out the Scoville units. Then the fun really begins!
Peppers have been around for a long, long time. Evidence of the use of peppers was found at Machu Pichu, believed to date back as far as 5200 BC. They were revered by the Incan civilization, the first king being named 'uchu", the word for pepper in the Incan language. They were brought to Europe by Christopher Columbus while he was searching for the totally unrelated Piper nigrum (black pepper), slowly making their way to Spain, India, Africa, Turkey, then Hungary. At one point in their history, Europeans believed they had a "certayne hidden evyll qualitie", but this notion was dispelled, and their popularity grew. It wasn't until the 17th century though, that hot peppers began to be used in some small degree by North Americans.
Peppers (Capsicum) are members of the nightshade family (Solanaceae), which of course also includes tomatoes, potatoes and eggplants. There are five cultivated species of peppers, and eighteen known wild species. In North American one species only will be found in the grocery stores and that is C. annum, which includes all chilies and bell varieties. I have grown some of the C. frutescens varieties such as tabasco and one of my all time favourites, Aji Limo, with it's citrus flavour and slap of heat.
The heat in any pepper is the result of the capsaicin concentration in the interior walls. In general the hotter the pepper, the more tolerant it is of cool weather.
Additionally, peppers are perennials and can sometimes be successfully overwintered in pots indoors or planted in hoophouses.
Peppers readily cross pollinate and if you are trying to save seed from different open pollinated varieties, plants either need to be caged or 500' apart. Realistically for most home gardeners, the best thing to do is simply grow one variety.
There are hundreds of varieties of hot peppers to choose from, and how much you enjoy the heat is the question you need to be asking when you are choosing varieties.
There are pleasant tasting varieties with low levels of heat, like Beaver Dam and Bulgarian Carrot, higher levels of heat with jalapenos and cayennes, or mind blowing heat with Tepin and Naga (Bhut) Jolokia. What is your pleasure?
I like to get my hot peppers started right around this time. Some varieties can take a little bit of time to germinate, although I find they never take as long as some seed vendors suggest.
I like to seed my hot peppers in 200 cell trays because I grow them in quantity, but really any container with good drainage will do. I fill my containers or trays with a good soil less mix which I have moistened with HOT water, I place my pepper seeds on the soil surface and then cover with a light 1/4 inch deep layer of soil. After a good misting with warm water, I cover them with a humidity dome or plastic bag.
Hot pepper seeds can be hot! Remember this when you are planting and don't wipe your eyes or you may be in for a burn. Wash your hands off when you are done in an attempt to limit this possibility.
Your hot pepper seeds want a good warm environment to germinate in. I put mine under my lights in the kitchen...close to my wood stove. This seems to make them pretty happy and germination is usually rapid. A heat mat, heating cables or similar could be used. As soon as they germinate, get the humidity dome off, transplanting them into a larger container when the true leaves appear.
Don't rush in getting them outside. They like a lovely warm soil, preferably made rich by a good helping of compost.
What will I plant this year?
The Naga Jolokia was quite a novelty and hit last year. As well I'll do Aji Limo, White Habanero, Jalapeno, Beaver Dam, Bulgarian Carrot, the scorchers Fire, Fatali and Tepin, assorted cayennes and Orange Rocoto as well as far more than I care to mention.
I'm really not aware of any pepper seed specialists in Canada. I have ordered seed in the past from US pepper enthusiasts The Pepper Gal , Redwood City Seeds and Tomato Bob to mention a few. Seed Savers Exchange also has a good collection.
Enjoy...and bring on the fun!