by Gail March Yerke

Today’s consumer is embracing the heat. Whether it’s the fare at your local farmers market, a favorite restaurant menu or selecting plants for the home vegetable garden, hot peppers are, well, hot. Even in the grocery store snack aisle, you’ll find the product extension of a spicy-hot version of everything from potato chips to nuts and crackers. Many festivals have added hot pepper eating competitions. But is this a passing fad or is it here to stay?

We asked Corinne Kizewski, a grower for Nichols Farm & Orchard in McHenry County, IL. The 300-acre farm offers a community supported agriculture (CSA) program and also attends 13 farmers markets each week in the greater Chicago area. Their CSA subscriptions are growing and often include hot peppers. “Poblanos and Anaheims fly out of our coolers. Fresnos and Cherry Bombs are really big too,” said Kizewski. She added that the Ghost and Scorpion peppers have been very popular. The farm also supplies the Fresno and Cherry Bomb peppers to a Wisconsin company that uses them in their sauces, pickling and jelly products.

Sara Sweet is greenhouse manager at Bluemel’s Garden and Landscape Center in Greenfield, WI. Their greenhouse offers 13 varieties of hot pepper plants for the home gardener from the milder poblano to Ghost and Carolina Reaper peppers. “We have increased our super-hot varieties the past few years,” she said. “We are also seeing more customers wanting varieties that are easily grown in containers. More people are bringing in their young kids and having them help pick out veggies and ask questions.”

Sweet indicated that some of the more popular varieties at their greenhouse included poblano, serrano, habanero, jalapeño, Ghost and Carolina Reaper.

How Hot is “Hot”?

The jalapeño pepper lists at 2,500 – 8,000 Scoville heat units (SHUs). The Ghost Pepper, considered one of the hottest peppers in the world, is over one million SHUs. The Scoville scale is the industry standard for measuring pepper heat. American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville created the “Scoville Organoleptic Test” in 1912. Taste testers were used at that time; today, more modern methods are used for the measurement. The process, high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), can determine the exact amount of capsaicin in a pepper. That information is then applied to the Scoville scale, still the official measurement used by experts and culinary enthusiasts alike. Seed companies often show the Scoville rating of hot peppers listed in their catalogs.

So how are new varieties developed? In addition to international commercial companies, many universities across the U.S. are now researching and developing new and improved vegetable varieties, including hot peppers.

Research at the Chile Pepper Institute

Paul Bosland, Ph.D., of NMSU with the NuMex Big Jim pepper. Photo courtesy of NMSU

Las Cruces is home of New Mexico State University (NMSU). Dennis Lozada, Ph.D., and Stephanie Walker, Ph.D., are co-directors of the Chile Pepper Institute, located at the NMSU Las Cruces campus. The organization has researched and introduced many of the hot peppers in today’s marketplace. The institute is unique in that it’s the only international research-based, nonprofit organization that specializes in education, research and archiving information related to Capsicum or chili peppers.

Denise Coon is senior research scientist associate of the institute’s Chile Breeding and Genetics Program. “We have released over 65 varieties developed by using classical breeding methods here since the program began. Some of these varieties are disease and pest resistant, higher yielding, with more flavor and higher color,” she said. Popular in greenhouse and field production as well as home gardens, cultivars developed there are identified with “NuMex” at the beginning of the name, such as NuMex Big Jim, a variety released in 1975. Growing up to 10 inches long, NuMex Big Jim was listed as the world’s largest chile pepper in the Guinness Book of Records.

It Takes Generations

A new cultivar evolves over 10 to 15 years, often called “generations.” It’s a journey from lab to greenhouse to field trials. Walker, involved in all three stages, explained that winter months find her in the lab and in the greenhouse with crossbreeding work. During the growing season, more research is conducted outdoors in their 3.5 acres of field production.

“You never run out of work in breeding,” she said. “There are different breeding goals for production.” The institute has over 2,000 accessions in their seed bank. “Accessions are just breeding materials that have not been characterized or stabilized. We just basically harvest seed from wild chile pepper plants. These accessions are essentially the same as a cultivar that may include an unstabilized breeding line or a source of germ plasm. They may be the source of really important genetics for disease resistance, increased yield or quality. Through traditional breeding you can actually cross pollinate these genes into new cultivars and new varieties for our growers.”

Developing the Perfect Jalapeño

Stephanie Walker, Ph.D., said, “You never run out of work in breeding. There are different breeding goals for production.”

Often eaten fresh or pickled, jalapeños have taken on a new life in the marketplace as jalapeño “poppers.” With many variations, the popular appetizer usually combines cream cheese with the bite of the pepper. For the past 10 years, the University of California-Davis has been working to develop the ideal jalapeño pepper for poppers. Student plant breeders are getting closer to releasing a jalapeño designed with the taste and texture of a jalapeño yet having a larger cavity like that of a bell pepper. Their Student Collaborative Organic Plant Breeding Education (SCOPE) project is a student-led collaborative of faculty and student plant breeders working with local organic growers.

Hot Trends

Whether you grow for farmers markets, supply local chefs or the home vegetable gardener, don’t miss out on this trend. Try a few of the hotter pepper varieties along with the traditional jalapeño, chiles and hot banana peppers. If you sell at a farmers market, show a large Scoville scale sign and identify your hot peppers with the coordinating number rating. Greenhouses can do the same on bench displays with their potted plants.

One thing’s for sure: the market for hot peppers is definitely heating up.