Heirloom Pepper Varieties
Learn how to grow these heirloom pepper varieties and even make your own pepper wine.
September 10, 2013
By William Woys Weaver
Heirloom Vegetable Gardening by William Woys Weaver is the culmination of some thirty years of first-hand knowledge of growing, tasting and cooking with heirloom vegetables. A staunch supporter of organic gardening techniques, Will Weaver has grown every one of the featured 280 varieties of vegetables, and he walks the novice gardener through the basics of planting, growing and seed saving. Sprinkled throughout the gardening advice are old-fashioned recipes — such as Parsnip Cake, Artichoke Pie and Pepper Wine — that highlight the flavor of these vegetables. The following excerpt on heirloom pepper varieties was taken from chapter 28, “Peppers.”
To locate mail order companies that carry these heirloom pepper varieties, use our Custom Seed and Plant Finder. Check out our collection of articles on growing and harvesting heirloom vegetables in Gardening With Heirloom Vegetables.
A Brief History of Heirloom Pepper Varieties
I must admit at the outset that I am a pepper gardener by default. I have several hundred varieties in my collection, and every year I add or create a few new ones. I fell into this because of my grandfather’s pepper collection and the curious things he acquired from Horace Pippin. While there are certainly many people growing peppers today, very few of them are trying to preserve historical varieties, particularly those of culinary or ornamental merit. Even though I have been growing and sorting out crosses from my grandfather’s collection for almost thirty years, there is still a great deal I do not know about peppers. But at least I am mastering the art of keeping my varieties pure, for of all the vegetables in the garden, peppers “cavort” the most.
Historically, peppers were classified by pod type, which had its own logic, since two varieties of the same pod type will cross readily. Therefore they were thought to be related. Unfortunately, it is the flower structure and other far more important genetic similarities that determine true species. In any case, it is important to know how peppers used to be classified in order to understand what writers are talking about in old garden books. Sydenham Edwards’s Complete Dictionary of Practical Gardening (1807) broke down the pepper kingdom into four groups:
None of this follows modern classification, and in fact, it defies all sense of order. Yet it can be useful, for example, in understanding some of the early varieties grown in Europe.
Jósef Csapó’s discussion of Hungarian peppers in 1775 referred to a variety called Torok-Bors, which he equated with poivre de Guinée (Guinea pepper), belonging to Edwards’s first group. All that is known for certain about this pepper is that it was indeed a Capsicum annuum (by modern classification) and that it was hot, since Csapó used the word paprika to describe it, one of the first references to paprika in any Hungarian work. In Hungarian, only those peppers that are used in a dried state are called paprika. Those that are eaten fresh or raw are invariably described as zold, as in paradicsom alaku zold Szentesi (Szentes tomato pepper), a popular garden pepper among American seed savers today. The word zold means “green” in the sense of young or unripe, as in the early American term “green corn.”
Other writers, like Dr. Thomas Cooper of Philadelphia, in his additions to The Domestic Encyclopedia (1821, 3:190), favored a more scientific order for peppers based on Linnaeus, such as the long-podded (Capsicum longioribus siliquis), the heart-shaped (Capsicum cordiforme), and so forth, all of it reading very strangely to modern eyes. Botanist Dr. William Darlington, taking a more cautious stance, noted with intentional vagueness that “several varieties (and perhaps distinct species) with fruit of various forms are to be met with in the gardens” (1837, 139–40). Nurseryman Robert Buist, writing ten years later in the Family Kitchen Garden (1847, 97) remarked with a seedsman’s flair for overstatement that there were twenty types of cayenne peppers being grown at the time, from the size of peas to the size of melons. Melons, no less! What this scrambled botany tells us is that a great variety of peppers existed in early American gardens, but only a handful were discussed in garden books. Documentation for many of our oldest heirloom peppers is therefore sparse.
This reality struck home further when I discovered in an old print shop a hand-colored engraving of a red beak-shaped pepper published in Philadelphia in 1838. Jean Andrews identified it as Capsicum chinense ‘Jacquin.’ Nicholas de Jacquin (1727–1817) discovered this species during a botanical expedition to the Caribbean region between 1754 and 1759. None of our old garden books even mention chinense peppers, let alone that some gardeners were obviously growing them in the United States, fiery hot as they were. Yet it was a chinense pepper that I believe to be the earliest documented Capsicum grown in what is now the eastern United States. This honor goes to a small orange pepper mentioned in the reports of Swedish geographer-engineer Peter Lindström, who resided on the Delaware River between 1642 and 1648 (Holm 1834, 43). It is the variety known today as the Jamaican Scotch Bonnet. After Lindström, however, history remained mum on the fate of this pepper until it was mentioned in 1768 in Philip Miller’s Gardener’s and Botanist’s Dictionary.
It was not until the 1970s that botanists rethought the genus Capsicum and rearranged the various pepper species with the help of genetic analysis and a new understanding of the structure of their flowers. There are still a great many unsettled issues in the field of pepper studies, and for the average gardener these controversies may seem complicated or arcane. Unfortunately, this untidy botanical history has a direct bearing on heirloom peppers because we must think about them in two different ways: how horticulturists considered them years ago and how botanists treat them today. Because the understanding of species was so vague in the past, a large number of the heirloom peppers that have come down to us are often heavily crossed. Thus it might be safe to assert that pure strains of truly old pepper lines are among our very rarest heirloom vegetables.
My friend Jean Andrews has helped me immensely in untangling some of the complexities of pepper history. She is the author of a definitive study of the pepper called Peppers: The Domesticated Capsicums (1984), recently revised in a new edition. Jean has grown a number of my heirloom peppers in order to help me identify their proper species and to confirm their historical descriptions. I am indebted to her for this, as well as for the unusual peppers that I have acquired from her. We have had a true pepper exchange between us.
Two other books are of use in raising heirloom peppers: Dave DeWitt and Paul Bosland’s The Pepper Garden (1993) and Pepper Diseases: A Field Guide (Black et al. 1991). The first work is a how-to-do-it handbook on growing most of the best-known pepper varieties now raised in the United States. The other is a booklet devoted to diseases and how to identify them. Although scientific, it is not packed with jargon and is easy to use because every problem is accompanied by a clear color photograph. The reason I recommend this book so highly is that most of the diseases affecting peppers also afflict other members of the nightshade family — tomatoes, eggplants, and potatoes in particular. Thus the information is useful for a whole range of garden vegetables. Knowing the problem is often half the battle; many dreadful-looking plant maladies have simple solutions that do not resort to chemicals.
Today, domesticated peppers are divided into five groups or species, having nothing to do with the shape or size of the pods. In fact, there is considerable agreement among botanists about doing away with the species Capsicum chinense and collapsing it into the species Capsicum frutescens. There may come a time in the near future when we can only speak of four groups of peppers, just as botanists did in the eighteenth century, but for different reasons. For the present, these are the five domesticated species generally accepted by the scientific community. There are other pepper species, but they are wild and not included in this discussion.
The native peoples of Mexico domesticated this species about 2,500 years ago. The Aztecs had dozens of varieties. The Spanish physician Dr. Francesco Hernandez mentioned seven peppers with their Nahuatl names in his Quatro libros de la naturaleza (1651). It is probably fair to say that the rage for peppers that has at last conquered the American palate is the final victory of the ancient Aztecs.
Many pepper seeds are slow to germinate, especially the wild varieties and members of the chinense and frutescens species. These should be started indoors very early in the year, preferably January, since germination may take as long as one month. The strongest plants can then be transplanted into pots and raised as pot plants until ready to plant outdoors.
Peppers prefer slightly acid soil, but more important, they like warm ground, full exposure to the sun, and a spot protected from high winds. Summer thunderstorms often do more damage to peppers than diseases or insects. It is always a good policy to stake large plants securely because the limbs are brittle and easily broken by heavy rains. Most bush varieties, like Tabasco or the Texas bird pepper, will tolerate some shade during part of the day. All peppers are self-pollinating, but cross-pollination between species is common. Cross-pollination of two varieties with the same pod type or two plants of the same species near one another is inevitable. All members of the annuum species will cross regardless of pod type; thus a tiny bird pepper can transform a sweet Italian frying pepper into a firebomb in one season. Worse news for the gardener is that the genes determining pungency (hotness) are dominant. Once a sweet pepper has crossed with a hot one, it is very difficult to restore the sweetness. The capsaicinoids that are responsible for making peppers hot to humans are not sensed by birds. This is why birds can feast all day on hot peppers with no ill effects. Since birds do not digest pepper seeds, they are a main distributor of seeds in the wild, and the reason I have peppers coming up like weeds all along my fences and under the trees where birds sleep at night.
The only way to ensure seed purity so that varieties grow true is to isolate them by 500 feet. If they are planted any closer than this, crossing will occur, and only caging will prevent it. Plants must be caged with screens small enough to keep out sweat bees, since they are a primary pollinator after honeybees. Another technique is to stagger blooming by forcing certain designated plants to come to fruit many weeks in advance of those near them. All flowers are pruned from nearby peppers until their turn arises. By carefully monitoring the plants, it is possible to raise a large number of varieties in a small area for seed purposes. I often pollinate plants in the ground with genetic material from potted specimens that have been selected for best traits and maintained several years as perennials. I call these my “stud” peppers.
Pepper seeds are ripe when the fruit is ripe. The seed should be removed and spread on paper towels to dry in an airy room away from direct sunlight. Let the seed dry at least two weeks, especially if the weather is humid. Damp seed will only mold in storage. When the seed is ready to put away, store it in airtight jars in a cool, dark closet. Be certain to date the seed. Viability will last approximately three years, although I have had some six-year-old seed germinate. And finally, always handle hot peppers with rubber gloves, especially when removing seed. The oils in peppers can get under the fingernails and cause severe irritation to the skin there, not to mention other parts of the body that may inadvertently come in contact with the hands.
Basilius Besler (1561–1629) did not discover this pepper, nor did he call it a cherry pepper. However, he was the earliest to illustrate it in one of his many famous botanical books, the Celeberrimi Eystettensis Horti Icones Plantarum Aulumnalium (1613). This was a partial record of the botanical collections of Johann Conrad von Gemmingen, bishop of Eichstatt in Germany. Besler’s name for it was piper minimum siliguis rotundis, “little round podded pepper.” But over the years, almost all peppers of this pod type have been dubbed “cherry,” particularly the larger-podded sorts.
The cherry pepper of Vilmorin (1885, 152) was considered more or less the standard among seedsmen, measuring one inch in diameter, much larger than any cherry I have ever seen. Besler’s cherry pepper is truer to its name, ranging in size from 1/2 to 3/4 of an inch, the same size as most wild cherries. Besler’s is also different from many of the common sorts of cherry peppers because its habit is similar to a dwarf tree, about 2 1/2 feet tall complete with woody trunk and the peculiarly arching stems of its fruit, like tails on shooting stars. This stem characteristic is quite evident in the original illustration of 1613.
Small hot peppers of this type are used throughout the Caribbean in pickles. Colonial American cooks grew cherry peppers of several kinds in their kitchen gardens. Many of the varieties came into the country from Jamaica or Cuba. The strain of Besler’s cherry pepper that I am growing descends from seed acquired in the 1860s by the Gompf family of Lititz in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The Gompfs were Moravians and maintained a kitchen garden stocked with vegetables gathered from exotic places by Moravian missionaries. In this case, the peppers came from eastern Nicaragua. Jean Andrews also sent me seed, and during a comparative growout a few years ago, her plants proved to be identical to mine, which is reason to suspect that this very old pepper may exist in several places under a variety of names.
Besler’s cherry pepper ripens late in the season, usually by mid-October in my garden, with brilliant red, waxy fruit. I also have several subvarieties in my collection, one with bright yellow pods, a variegated one with white fruit striped with green like the Fish Pepper, and a snowy white — podded variety that certainly outclasses all of them in terms of rarity. All of these peppers are highly ornamental and can be cultivated as perennials in pots.
Known throughout the French Caribbean as piment bec d’oiseau noir and in Spanish-speaking countries as pico de pájaro negro, the Black Bird’s Beak Pepper is difficult to find in nineteenth-century American seed catalogs. Yet the name commonly appeared in popular literature. It was certainly considered a true variety in E. G. Storke’s The Family, Farm and Garden (1860, 130) and by Vilmorin (1885, 154), although the latter author assigned it incorrectly to the species Capsicum frutescens. Dr. Jean Andrews has vetted the various bird’s beak peppers in my collection, and they are all Capsicum annuum. This means that in spite of their small size, these peppers will indeed cross readily with most common garden varieties.
In my region of Pennsylvania, several distinct types of bird’s beak peppers have been preserved in gardening circles. Some of the most interesting have come out of Philadelphia’s old and well-established black community. All of these African-American heirlooms share a common trait: the pods are small, pendant, tapered, and end in a hooked point very much like the upper beak of a parrot. Many are probably not true varieties but simply selections that over the years have assumed certain small variations. This would explain the variety of homey names, from crow beak peppers, hummingbird peppers, and yellow canary peppers (with orange-yellow stems and veining in the leaves), to a whole flock of beaks with appropriate colors and individualistic names that vary almost from garden to garden.
The Black Bird’s Beak is undoubtedly one of the showiest of all the heirlooms of this type. It was once well known outside the Caribbean, including parts of the eastern coastal United States. Its date of introduction is not recorded, but it was grown by nineteenth-century Philadelphia black cook and caterer P. Albert Dutrieuille and passed to the de Baptiste family, also involved in catering.
Oral history has suggested that the pepper came from Haiti like the Dutrieuilles themselves. Seed came into my grandfather’s collection from Horace Pippin, who was also responsible for passing along the provenance. Because the plant has blackish purple stems, black-green leaves, and fruits that ripen from purple-black to brown and finally to a deep ruby red, it is easy to understand how this pepper could be used as an eye-catching garnish in catering situations.
In the 1890s a few Philadelphia seed houses offered a related pepper called Black Nubian (there was even a Little Nubian). It was similar to black bird’s beak in most respects except pod shape, which resembled a small black bell pepper. Pods of the black bird’s beak measure 3/4 inch in length and must be pendant, two easy features to determine whether or not the plant is growing true to variety. Furthermore, as with Black Nubian, the flowers must be purple. The plant reaches 2 1/2 to 3 feet the first growing season, achieving a somewhat umbrella-like shape. It is perennial in frost-free areas and can be overwintered from year to year in a pot. A late-season pepper, its fruit ripens in September and October. USDA Zones 5 and colder will require pot culture exclusively.
For overwintering in pots, refer to the directions under the Texas Bird Pepper. If treated as an annual, the pepper reseeds freely — it is almost a weed in some parts of my garden. Subzero weather does not adversely affect seed vitality in fallen fruit, but for seed-saving purposes, it is best to harvest seed only from the most perfect pods and not rely on volunteers each spring.
The fruit in all its varying shades is perfect for ornamental pickles that may need a dash of heat to give them zip. But since the peppers are hot, they must be used sparingly. Because the black pods remain black when cooked, they can be used in black bean dishes.
Buist’s Wholesale Price Current of Seeds (1891, 15) listed a long yellow cayenne that was popular among nineteenth-century gardeners. In southern New Jersey, where this pepper was grown extensively for market, it was called Buist’s yellow cayenne to distinguish it from other similar long hot peppers, and should not be confused with the piment jaune long of Vilmorin (1885, 151). The French variety was thick and stumpy; Buist’s is long and narrow.
It is not known when this pepper was introduced into the United States or under what circumstances, but it probably came in with the Demerara sugar trade in the late 1840s or early 1850s even though yellow cayenne-type peppers were known long before then. A variant form, much rarer and slightly smaller in size, has also been preserved under the name piment jaune sucre. It is a sweet cayenne utterly devoid of heat that is believed to have come from French Guiana. Older yet is M’Mahon’s Long Orange, a pumpkin-colored variant listed in M’Mahon’s catalogs as early as 1806. The orange form is very hot and was used dried and powdered in a home remedy for keeping ants out of the kitchen and beetles off cucumber vines.
The fruit on all of these variants, including Buist’s Yellow, is pendant and rather close to the ground, considering that the plants range in height from 2 to 2 1/2 feet. Buist’s Yellow is slightly wrinkled and twisting, usually with a small claw or hook on the blossom end of the pod, and measures 4 1/2 to 5 1/4 inches in length. The pods attain a maximum diameter of 3/4 inches at the stem end and ripen from pale green to lemon yellow to a deep golden yellow. The plants produce all summer until frost, especially if they are harvested regularly.
For seed-saving purposes, select seed only from pods with fine color, hooked tips, and the slightly twisted appearance.
Bell peppers called Bull Nose were known to American gardeners in the eighteenth century. Thomas Jefferson grew them, and seed is available from the gardens at Monticello. What distinguishes the Bull Nose from other more recent bell pepper varieties is the crinkled “nose” on the blossom end of the pod. Beyond that, it resembles the common bell pepper in most other respects. However, the heirloom pepper that has been preserved as the Bull Nose is not identical to its eighteenth-century ancestor.
Philadelphia still-life painter Raphaelle Peale painted a group of Bull Nose peppers about 1814, and it is obvious that the pods in that period were much smaller than the Bull Nose of today. This would tally with early American recipes that required six peppers where today we would use three — particularly evident in recipes where the weight of six peppers was mentioned. The eighteenth-century Old Black Mango or Blue Guinea Pepper shown in the illustration below is more to the scale of the original Bull Nose, although the pod shape is elongated and pointed.
Many Americans call bell peppers “mangoes” in reference to their former use in mango pickles, a recipe that traces ultimately to India. To mango something meant to stuff and pickle it with a mixture of spices and shredded cabbage. The Virginia House Wife (1838:168) included a recipe for mangoing Bull Nose peppers when they were small, and it noted, “Be careful not to cut through the large veins, as the heat will instantly diffuse itself through the pod.” This precautionary advice ran through most of the bell pepper recipes of the period and provides very clear evidence that the original strains of Bull Nose were also hot, or mildly so.
The bell or Bull Nose pepper described by Fearing Burr (1865, 607) was much blockier than the older sorts and contained no heat. Yet it had four small lobes on the blossom end, consistent with the peppers painted by Peale in 1814. However, during the latter part of the nineteenth century, a Victorian variety called Bull Nose or Improved Large Bell appeared in many seed catalogs. It measured 3 inches long and 2 inches in diameter and thus was boxier in shape than the old more elongated sort, with thicker flesh, and usually described as sweet. This was most likely created by crossing Bull Nose with Spanish Sweet (a Spanish variety of bell pepper) or with Burpee’s Chinese Giant. In any case, it is this crossed strain of pepper that survives today under the name of Bull Nose. In all likelihood, the original Bull Nose is extinct.
Victorian seedsmen created a number of novelty peppers as much as marketing gimmicks as a challenge to the plant breeder’s ingenuity. Today, the macho qualities of heat seem to guide the pepper industry; in the past, size and curious shape were what counted, and the Elephant’s Trunk pepper has both size and shape. Popular in the 1890s and illustrated in the Maule seed catalog for 1898, this pepper was named in honor of Jumbo, a famous nineteenth-century circus elephant. It is not synonymous with a French variety of cayenne from the same period called trompe d’elephant. An American variety that is still a hit with children and any gardener fond of unusually sweet peppers, it is also ideal for culture in pots or tubs on a terrace.
The pods measure 10 to 12 inches in length, virtually dragging the ground, since the bushes are low, barely 1 1/2 feet high. The general shape does indeed resemble an elephant’s trunk, at most 3 to 4 inches in diameter at the top, often half that. The pods are thick and fleshy, usually divided into three long, tapering seed chambers that end in three lobes resembling the tip of an elephant’s trunk. When fully ripe, the pods turn a bright scarlet red and have a slight cherry flavor.
These peppers are middle to late season, coming into peak production toward the end of August or early September. They will not do well in areas colder than USDA Zone 5 unless cultivated in pots and protected from cool nights. The plants require sturdy support, since the fruit will pull the bushes to the ground, especially during heavy rains.
The origins of the Fish Pepper are obscure. The Aztecs had a variety of pepper called White Fish Chili described in the 1569 Florentine Codex of Spanish friar Bernardino de Sahaguin (1963, 68). A pepper with this name existed in the early nineteenth century, but it is not certain that it was the one under discussion. All that has been ascertained thus far is that the Fish Pepper shown in color plate 65 was an African-American heirloom that began as a sport or mutation of a common serrano pepper sometime during the 1870s. Over time it became a fixed variety, but it was never sold commercially.
Seed was acquired by my grandfather from Horace Pippin, who said that the variety originated near Baltimore. By 1900, throughout the region stretching from Washington to Philadelphia, Fish Peppers were raised almost exclusively in the black community for use in oyster and crab houses, and especially for dishes using terrapin. It was one of those “secret” ingredients favored by cooks and caterers to spike a recipe with invisible heat, for the Fish Pepper was used primarily when it was white, and it could be dried to retain that color. This feature was a culinary plus in the days when cream sauces reigned supreme.
H. Franklyn Hall, chef at Boothby’s Hotel in Philadelphia at the turn of this century, was a great admirer of the Fish Pepper. His 300 Ways to Cook and Serve Shell Fish, Terrapin, Green Turtle (1901) is now considered a classic by food historians. But the pepper was not difficult to find, at least not years ago, because many fish markets carried it in conjunction with their other foods, even pickled with clams. Today, this pepper is almost forgotten, although it is available through Seed Savers Exchange.
The plant grows on sprawling bushes about 2 feet tall that are ideal for pot culture on a terrace. Since the leaves are variegated with patches of white, gray, and dark green, the pepper is a conversation piece throughout the season. As the fruit ripens, it changes from white with green stripes to orange with brown stripes, then red. Seed can be saved only from red pods.
The Fish Pepper undergoes genetic turmoil every so often, no doubt owing to its origin as a mutant. This will express itself in the form of weak, top-heavy plants, or occasional sterility. Therefore, seed should not be saved from one plant alone but from at least six different individuals. Combine this seed at the end of the season so that the genetic mix for next year’s planting is as varied as possible. Furthermore, keep the plants within 15 feet, or better, plant them 3 feet apart in a square so that there is maximum cross-pollination. The fish pepper crosses readily with other common garden peppers and will spread the mutant gene that causes its distinctive coloration. For seed purity, keep it at least 500 feet from other peppers in the vicinity, and select plants from the last seeds to germinate.
Cayenne is a city in French Guiana on the northeast coast of South America. The pepper bearing its name may have originated there at a very early date. What we know for certain is that it was not a Capsicum annuum and that its pods were small and cone-shaped. Fearing Burr (1865, 609) described it as too tender for American kitchen gardens, being a species akin to Tabasco. Vilmorin (1885, 151) agreed that the “true Cayenne” was too tender even for France and that it was a species apart from the long cayenne pepper, of which the Goat Horn is a selection. The difficulties in raising the true cayenne outside of the tropics gave rise to a wide range of cayenne substitutes, and that is why the history of the cayenne pepper is now so confusing.
As a matter of convenience in commerce, all long-podded hot peppers were called cayenne, simply because they could be used in making cayenne powder, the culinary condiment. Under that more generic meaning, cayenne peppers appeared in all of our eighteenth-century garden and cookery books. As early as 1805, Bernard M’Mahon offered for sale a variety of cayenne called Capsicum siliquis longioribus, or Long Drooping Pepper. This was more or less equated with the piment long de Cayenne offered for many decades by the Vilmorins of Paris and eventually illustrated in the Album Vilmorin (24:1873). In color and pod shape it is nearly identical to the Goat Horn.
Since it is an annuum, the Goat Horn will come to fruit much more readily in northerly regions than tropical species related to Tabasco. Furthermore, this long, narrow pod type comes closest in appearance to the ersatz cayennes raised in early American kitchen gardens. It is also a handsome plant, growing about 2 1/2 to 3 feet tall. The pendant pods are black-green when unripe, an important color factor when cooking them in vinegar in the green state. Since vinegar tends to bleach some shades of green, a pepper that holds its color during processing is an asset to cooks who want their sauces visually appealing.
The pods, which eventually ripen to a bright coral red, measure about 6 inches in length and ½ inch in diameter at the stem end, tapering to a point, The pepper is an excellent representative of its type and dries well, an important feature for a pepper that is to be ground to a powder. If this heirloom pepper has a drawback, it would be its lateness in coming to fruit, ripening in early to late October. Therefore it probably would not do well in areas of the country where summers are cool and short. Shorter-podded varieties like Ole Pepperpot would be better adapted to that kind of climate.
The Hinkelhatz is among the oldest varieties of hot pepper preserved by the Pennsylvania Dutch. It has been cultivated by this people for such a long time — well over 150 years — that it not only comes with an ethno-idiosyncratic name, it also comes in several distinct colors, the two most common being red and yellow. The Pennsylvania Dutch name means “chicken heart,” which describes its shape and size, for it is not a large pepper, measuring some 1 1/4 inches in length and 3/4 of an inch in diameter at the stem end. The pods taper to a blunt point and are covered with tiny bumps and wrinkles.
I had assumed for many years that the Hinkelhatz was descended from the Jamaican Scotch Bonnet, but this was not the case. Charles L’Ecluse illustrated the Hinkelhatz pepper in his Curae Posterions (1611, 99), but no place of origin was given. Presumably, it was Mexico. Jean Andrews grew this pepper for me and confirmed its taxonomy: it is not a Capsicum chinense but rather a Capsicum armuum. I remain convinced, however, that it must have a touch of habañero in its veins, because it has the same smoking heat.
David Lloyd, while discussing peppers in his Economy of Agriculture (1832, 83), wrote rather cryptically, “The heart-shaped kind is generally used for pickling.” A Quaker living among the Pennsylvania Germans, he must have known the Hinkelhatz, although it is also possible that he had the heart-shaped pimento pepper in mind. In any case, the Hinkelhatz was rarely eaten raw. It was a pepper used almost exclusively in pickles.
The Pennsylvania Dutch cooked and pureed the Hinkelhatz to make pepper vinegar, a condiment similar to Tabasco sauce. Such a recipe appeared in the 1848 Pennsylvania Dutch cookbook called Die Geschickte Hausfrau, which I translated and published under the title Sauerkraut Yankees (1983, 170). Pepper vinegar was often sprinkled on sauerkraut, especially the recipes made with garlic vinegar. More recently, the Hinkelhatz figured in a late nineteenth-century condiment called Shirley sauce. A recipe for this pickle sauce using eight small Hinkelhatz peppers appeared in a Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, cookbook called Recipes and Menus (1921, 178).
The Hinkelhatz is a prolific producer but ripens late in the season, in Pennsylvania usually by mid-September. The bushes are compact, about 1 1/2 to 2 feet tall, as can be seen in color plate 67. Both the yellow and red varieties are shown. My friend Al Lotti discovered an orange variant near Maxatawny, Pennsylvania, preserved among a small circle of Mennonite farmers. Since its shape is more toplike and its fruit much smaller in size than the typical Hinkelhatz, it may represent a collateral strain, or indeed a different species. The Pennsylvania Dutch who raise it consider it a Hinkelhatz, so I have included a drawing of it here.
For seed-saving purposes, choose only the most perfectly shaped pods. Reject any that are overly long and narrow or dimpled on the blossom end. This will insure that the distinctive shape is preserved.
I have often been tempted to call this the Pennsylvania Dutch jalapeño, since it can be used like a jalapeño in cookery. The Pennsylvania Dutch who pickle it whole often serve it stuffed with peanut butter, which makes an interesting hors d’oeuvre, especially when eaten with salt pretzels and beer.
This rare and very old heirloom is believed to have been introduced or developed in the nineteenth century by Mennonite horticulturist Jacob B. Garber (1800–1886) of Lancaster County. It was preserved for many years by the Martin family of Ephrata, Pennsylvania. The Old Order Mennonites who grew it in that neighborhood knew it as the Mordipeffer or as Mordis Ceelriewe Peffer. A smooth-podded relative of the jalapeño, it derives its name from its distinctive shape and color: long, narrow, carrot-shaped fruit resembling the old Early Horn carrot. The pepper requires about 120 days to bear fruit, which ripen from pale green to brilliant orange, then turn a deep orange-red. Pods range in length from 3 to 3 1/2 inches and are mildly hot to hot, depending on ripeness. Overall plant height is normally 2 1/2 feet, although the bushes tend to sprawl close to the ground when in fruit. The fruit itself is fleshy and keeps well in cool, dry storage, in some cases for as long as 2 months. Thus it is possible, with some planning in advance, to have fresh peppers into January.
Perhaps it is best to begin with a soup called mondongo, a pepper called chiltepe, and Schell’s Long Red Cayenne. Schell’s pepper was essentially a selection of the large Mexican chiltepe pepper, trained to grow on a low bush for field culture. It was a variety sold to truck farmers in the 1920s by the Walter S. Schell seed company of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, as well as by William Henry Maule in Philadelphia. This pepper was intended to supply the kitchens of the Horn and Hardart cafeteria chain with peppers for its once-famous pepperpot soup, not to mention a number of soup and scrapple companies in the region that needed fresh cayenne for seasoning. Not only is the chiltepe a pepper of great antiquity, a pod of it floating in mondongo (Mexican tripe soup) was considered the only proper finishing touch by Mexican cooks. Philadelphia tripebased pepperpot is a Yankee relative of mondongo demanding a similar marriage of tripe and peppers. Most of the heirloom hot peppers that have survived in the Philadelphia region were connected, in one way or another, with the city’s pepperpot soup culture, especially in the heyday of the nineteenth century, when this spicy soup was sold by vendors in the street.
This background history provides the explanation for the name of the cayenne pepper under discussion. Ole Pepperpot is not nearly as hot as a true chiltepe, which may explain why it was more acceptable in upper-class cookery years ago. The pepper was preserved by two families of black Philadelphia caterers, the Augustins, who were famous nationally in the 1800s, and the de Baptistes, who later married into the Augustin clan. The Augustins did not raise the pepper themselves; someone raised it for them under contract. Yet interestingly enough, Ole Pepperpot contains a “blush” of chiltepe, for it ripens like a chiltepe, with a hint of orange at its extremities while still partially green. However, the pods are much different, being twisted, sometimes even curled, about 4 inches in length and 3/4 of an inch in diameter at the stem end. On the blossom end or tip of the pod there is usually a small hook that is sometimes quite pronounced. The plants are tall, often 3 1/2 feet, and branching. The pods ripen by midsummer and produce heavily until frost.
The Album Vilmorin (1873, 24) illustrated an identical cayenne, but yellow in color. If Ole Pepperpot came to America with the Augustins, then it arrived about 1816 while Peter Augustin served as chef to the Spanish ambassador in Washington. Beyond this, very little else is known about the early history of this pepper, except for two interesting coincidences. The Ram’s Horn pepper, preserved by the Fischer family in North Carolina since the early part of this century and now part of the Heritage Farm seed collection (SSE PEP 13), is similar in shape to Ole Pepperpot and may represent a collateral genetic line. Furthermore, the so-called Penis Pepper now so popular among pepper fanciers is a direct descendant of Ole Pepperpot. The tell-tale hook is still there, but sunken into a heavily wrinkled pod. Having crossed Ole Pepperpot with Elephant’s Trunk pepper to create a little monster called Love Gun, I know how this works.
In any case, it would appear that the nineteenth century ancestors of Ole Pepperpot were widely distributed along the coast of the eastern and southern United States. Because of its close association with black cookery in this country and the fact that seed came to my grandfather from Horace Pippin, history has set this pepper apart as one of the important representative heirlooms from the African-American community.
Made internationally famous by the McIlhenny family of New Iberia, Louisiana, this is a pepper that takes its name from a sauce. Introduced without a name into Louisiana about 1848, it became the primary ingredient in a pepper vinegar originally called Extract of Tabasco Pepper, later known as Tabasco Pepper Sauce. The originators of the sauce gave the pepper its name because they believed that it had come from the state of Tabasco in Mexico. In fact, this pepper is not found in Tabasco. Nevertheless, the pepper has been cultivated by the McIlhennys for such a long period of time that it has evolved into a variety completely unlike others of its species. It is also the only member of the frutescens species cultivated on a commercial basis in the United States.
The pepper is well known for its heat, although it is not as hot as a habañero. Lovers of hot pepper in the nineteenth century turned to the Tabasco pepper, and for many years W. Atlee Burpee of Philadelphia offered seed that came directly from New Iberia. Unfortunately, this pepper requires a long growing season because the pods do not begin to ripen until early November. In my garden this means that I can raise enough ripe pods for seed, but most of the crop is still green or unripe when I have my first frost. Southeastern Pennsylvania is about as far north as the Tabasco pepper can be cultivated.
The gardener’s rule of thumb is that the Tabasco pepper can be grown successfully anywhere that figs can be grown without winter protection. This means that the pepper is best suited to the South or Southwest. However, for culinary purposes, one or two plants are ample, and therefore, in cooler parts of the country, the pepper can be grown in pots. It makes an impressive pot plant, since it stands 3 to 4 feet tall, upwardly branching, and is covered with small 1 1/2 inch long, slender pods. The pods are erect and ripen from pale green to yellow, orange, then red, quite showy when in full fruit.
The Texas bird pepper that I grow came to me from the collection of Dr. George Thomas (1808–1887), a plant collector once well known in my region for his keen interest in the rare and unusual. Thomas’s original seed came from Bernard M’Mahon, and he propagated the plants as hothouse ornamentals. The reason that Thomas took such an interest in this South Texas weed was that M’Mahon obtained his seed from Thomas Jefferson. Thus, to complete the circle, I recently sent seed to Monticello for the heirloom seed program now underway there.
According to Jefferson’s Garden Book (1944, 512–13), Samuel Brown sent Jefferson a parcel of small ovoid peppers from Natchez in May 1813. Brown had collected the peppers in the vicinity of San Antonio and reported that they grew wild throughout southern Texas. American settlers in the area referred to them as turkey peppers or bird peppers because wild fowl of all kinds found the ripe fruit irresistible.
Jefferson sent most of the pepper samples to Philadelphia seedsman Bernard M’Mahon, who in turn propagated the seed and sold it throughout the United States. The fruit of this old strain is ovoid, although there is a variant form with perfectly round berries. The ovoid fruit measures no more than 1/4 to 1/2 inch in length and ripens from green to bright orange-red. They are ideal for drying or they can be used in pepper vinegars, hot sauces, and spicy pickles. In spite of their small size, these peppers are violently hot.
In yet another curious twist of history, John H. Rogers of San Antonio published a small report (1856, 288) recommending Texas bird peppers and predicted that in time they would become an “article of commerce.” That was 140 years ago. Perhaps it is safe to say that he was right; this is one pepper that has helped to jump-start modern Tex-Mex cookery.
The Texas bird pepper is perennial in frost-free areas and annual where the ground freezes. Where it is perennial, it defoliates in the fall like a deciduous shrub. Start seed indoors in February or early March, then transplant to the garden after all danger of frost has passed. One bush will produce hundreds of tiny peppers within 120 days. If it is grown in a pot and overwintered in a greenhouse, prune the plant severely and water sparingly between December and February. Allow the plant to defoliate and go dormant. In March, fertilize and water regularly until it pushes new growth and is ready to move out of doors in warm weather.
There are not many named varieties of tomato peppers that are documented heirlooms, even though this pod type was one of the most common in early American kitchen gardens. Judging from early botanical works and old garden books, it was also one of the earliest peppers known to Europeans. In the very same print in which Basilius Besler illustrated his cherry pepper in 1613, there is a tall pepper plant with distinctive tomatolike fruit. The pod is shaped exactly like the Early Large Red tomato and may be considered the standard for what is meant by a tomato pepper. In fact, Robert Buist (1847, 97) confirmed this standard shape, adding that tomato peppers were also mildly hot. Hungarian pepper breeders have taken this pod type and developed innumerable variations, some red, some golden orange, resembling little pumpkins, others limy green when ripe.
In American gardens, the red tomato-shaped pepper was one of the most common pod types, serving many cooks as their choice of “sweet” pepper, especially those varieties with thick fleshy pods. Fearing Burr (1865, 614) noted that there were several subvarieties even then. In my section of the country, the most commonly raised tomato peppers are the small varieties like the one depicted in the drawing to the left. These measure about 1/2 inches in diameter and I inch thick. I offer this variety under the name Weaver’s Mennonite Stuffing pepper through Seed Saver’s Exchange. It came from my grandfather’s collection and was a variety grown by his grandfather near Fertility in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Because of their small size, they are popular among the Pennsylvania Dutch for pickling or for stuffing with cream cheese, to be eaten as an hors d’oeuvre. This small pod type is documented at least to the 1860s and may be considered a miniaturization of the larger-podded varieties.
The most interesting of the tomato peppers, and one of the most beautiful, is the highly ruffled one sold under the name Red Ruffled Pimento pepper by Seeds of Change. This pepper is illustrated in the Album Vilmorin (1865, 16) and is a classic of its type. Both this and Weaver’s tomato pepper grow on small plants, at most 2 1/2 feet tall. The small-fruited one is a very heavy producer throughout the summer. Both varieties ripen to a deep ruby red.
During the 1760s Philadelphia botanist John Bartram assembled a large assortment of tropical plants for botanical enthusiast Sir John St. Claire at his estate near Trenton, New Jersey. Avocados, guavas, shaddocks, blood oranges, and many other exotics were procured through Charles Willing on Barbados. This highly ornamental pepper is believed to have been part of the original St. Claire collection. It is a wild pepper (landrace) that has not submitted to the taming hand of gardeners in spite of its long cultivation in pots.
Regarding its botanical origin, Willing’s Barbados pepper was probably not native to Barbados, but arrived there sometime in the seventeenth century. It is similar in some ways to the macho pepper of Yucatán and Central America, and was preserved for many years as a curiosity by the Cooper family of Coopers Point, near Camden, New Jersey. From the Coopers, it passed into the collection of Mahlon Moon, a Quaker nurseryman at Morrisville, Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Both families disseminated seed through a large network of gardeners in the Philadelphia and Baltimore regions. There are a number of variant forms or strains.
In Philadelphia it was known as the Barberry or Pipperidge pepper. The diminutive 2 1/2-to-3-foot plants produce dark, boxwood-green leaves, delicately shaped and covered with soft down. The ripe fruit resembles a barberry in size and shape, although unlike a true barberry, it is erect rather than pendant. Because it makes such a striking ornamental, the Barbados pepper was used as a houseplant during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The peppers were also harvested, either green or ripe, and infused in Madeira to make pepper wine, or as some called it, “pepper sherry.” This was a popular Caribbean condiment in old Philadelphia and Charleston cookery, particularly as a seasoning for soups, sauces, and fricassees. Caroline Sullivan’s recipe from The Jamaica Cookery Book (1897, III) is fairly easy to reproduce.
Eight yellow and eight red peppers cut in small pieces or sliced and put in a glass bottle or jar. Pour half a pint of sherry on this, and put it in the sun for twelve hours. It is then fit for use. If you can get cherry peppers, the green and red mixed look very pretty together: some people prefer the tiny bird peppers which are commonly to be had. A little pepper wine is a very great addition to soups or made dishes.
For the yellow and red peppers, use Buist’s Yellow cayenne and Ole Pepperpot. An accurate period cherry pepper would be Besler’s cherry pepper.
Seeds of the Barbados pepper are slow to germinate and must be started early in February or March. If treated as a perennial and brought indoors in the winter, the plant will develop a woody stem and grow into a small, spreading bush. Ideal for pot culture, it can be pruned to grow in a dense, compact shape.
Find seeds for these heirlooms and more with our Custom Seed and Plant Finder.
Photos and Illustrations Courtesy William Woys Weaver.
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