Chilli peppers are one of the most satisfying of all vegetables in the home garden as they are relatively easy to grow and are also very ornamental and look great amongst flower beds or in a container on the patio. They are perennial plants, and can be grown for several years in tropical and subtropical areas, but are mostly grown as annuals, especially in areas that get frost. There is a pepper for every taste from the sweet bell types with virtually no heat to the fiery, take-your-breath-away habanero pepper at the opposite end of the scale. There are also a great range of colours too, from deep shiny black fruit to purple, green, orange, yellow, red, pink. The coloured ones will tend to mature to red, which is when they are at their hottest, but some colours will stay as they are.

Chilli peppers are one of the most ancient of domesticated plants having been grown for thousands of years in their place of origin in South America. The common thread to all chilli peppers is that they belong to the plant genus Capsicum but over thousands of years an incredible array of shapes, sizes, colours and forms has been selected all over the world where peppers have been grown. Hence we now have names such as green Thai chilli pepper, reflecting the place where this variety was selected in cultivation rather than the plant being found in the wild there.

While they are known as peppers the various types of capsicum are not related to the plant (Piper nigrum) that produces the black pepper corn that we grind onto our food with salt as a seasoning. Rather, chilli peppers belong to the family Solanaceae, making them cousins of the tomato, potato and eggplant.

The heat in capsicums is due to a group of natural chemicals called capsaicins. Different varieties of chilli vary in both the types and amount of capsaicins they contain, which explains why some are much hotter than others. The effect can also be more subtle as the different forms of capsaicin differ in the speed with which they react with moisture in the mouth to cause the heat sensation: it can be instantaneous or delayed for a short while, but the net result is much the same. Bell peppers (the ones that we normally call capsicums in Australia) are relatively low in capsaicin (less than 0.001%) while the more pungent chilli peppers are high (approximately 1.3%) of the total volume of liquid carried by that fruit. It should also be said that red colour in the fruits does not necessarily relate to the heat of a chilli pepper. Rather, the rule of thumb is the smaller and thinner the pepper the hotter it is likely to be.

Handling chillis

When handling chillis a few simple tips can help you avoid being burnt. The oils and juices in the flesh, and particularly in the seeds and the ribs to which they are attached, will burn all parts of your anatomy, not just your tongue. So when handling the hotter varieties it is a good idea to wear gloves and never touch your eyes nose or mouth. Afterwards wash both the gloves and your hands with soapy water. If you should get chilli in your eyes or on skin, then washing any excess with water will help, and it will have a cooling effect. You can also use oil and then wipe off. The chemical that produces the heat is capsaicin, and it is colourless and odourless. It is fat soluble, which is why drinking lots of water will do little to dull the heat effect…milk or yoghurt is a better choice.

How do I grow chilli peppers

Chilli peppers are warm climate plants that do not tolerate frost but will thrive in a sheltered sunny spot (against a wall in colder climates) about 50-60cm apart in well-drained, well-manured soil with some super phosphate raked in. It is easiest to purchase established seedlings especially if you need a head start in frost-prone climates. They are also excellent in containers with the larger the pot, the larger the plant and obviously, the larger the crop. Pinch out the growing tips when the plants are about 6 inches high to encourage a bushy plant. Support the plants and keep the roots moist.

The flowers will appear in late spring to early summer and the fruits should be ready by mid to late summer, and remember, the more fruit you remove, the more fruit the plant will produce. Start picking the fruits just before they start to ripen fully or don’t appear to be getting any larger. The plants are generally trouble free when it comes to pests and diseases, which make them a very rewarding plant to grow.

Chilli pepper varieties

Chilli peppers are raised from seed and this in turn leads to variation and the selection of individual varieties within a particular type. The following list of chilli pepper types represents a good range for the garden from mild through to red-hot:

Red, yellow, green capsicum (sweet bell peppers)
In Australia, these extremely mild chilli peppers (known elsewhere in the world as sweet bell peppers) are generally referred to as capsicums and can be green, red or yellow in colour. The familiar blocky fruits are often four-lobed and are extremely versatile and can be eaten raw in salads or used for a variety of recipes. The flavour is rather mild but nonetheless distinctive and they are readily cultivated in the garden.

Red and Yellow banana peppers
There are several variations within the banana peppers from the ‘€˜Sweet Banana’€™ to the medium ‘€˜Hot Banana’€™ variety. The fruits are about 15cm long and are shaped as the name would suggest and are crisp with thick flesh. They are also known as the Hungarian wax chilli and are used in sauces or can be roasted and stuffed.

Cayenne Chilli
This is an easy-to-grow plant that yields the familiar cayenne pepper when it is dried and ground. However, it is also very useful as a fresh pepper and is of medium heat which makes it great for Creole and Cajun cooking. The fruits are long, thin and sharply pointed and are usually about 10-15cm long depending on the individual variety (eg ‘€˜Long Thin Cayenne’ and ‘Long Chilli’€™) with both green and red types available.

Bird’s Eye Chilli
This is a rather ornamental type of Chilli with nice displays of fruits that are held erect at the top of the plant. The pointy, thin fruits are usually about 4-5cm long and are very hot and there are many per bush. The most recent varieties have short bushes with fruit clearly displayed at the top. Fruits are usually light to dark green in colour and should be used sparingly unless you are a real chilli freak.

Jalapeno chilli
This is a is a very popular chilli for Mexican cooking and produces heaps of rather chunky, thick-fleshed fruits about 7-10cm long, usually green fruits (that can ripen to red) that are generally of medium heat. This type of pepper has become particularly popular in the United States due to its excellent flavour and versatility as it can be used fresh or in processed products. They are the chilli generally used for stuffing to create the Mexican delicacy Chilli Rellenos.

Rocoto Chilli

An interesting variety of chilli from higher areas in South America, and is more cold tolerant than other varieties, but will still be affected by frost. It is Capsicum pubescens, so called for the hairs on the leaves. It can also be identified by the black seeds and purple flowers. It has quite fleshy fruit, making it best for using fresh rather than for drying. Plants can grow for a number of years, and will produce fruit through the colder months. The fruit has quite a high level of heat. Read more here >>>

Habanero chilli
This type is at the hottest of the scale and is used in salsas and chutneys and should definitely be treated with caution, especially when you are cutting them. The fruits are usually about 5cm in diameter and may be either red or orange and have a rather distinctive campanulate shape similar to a Christmas bell decoration.

Serrano chilli
This is another rather hot chilli that has distinctive bullet-shaped fruits that are about 6cm long with thick flesh. The fruits hang down from the bush and can be picked either when they are deep green or else allowed to ripen further to a sweeter flavoured red. This variety is grown word wide and used in salsas, is good for pickling and is the type favoured for many bottled chilli sauces.