Ep. 188 Spicy Chiles: What Makes Peppers Hot?

Interview with Danise Coon.

article image
by AdobeStock/Andreas Berheide

What makes peppers hot? Do seeds make peppers hot? Chili expert and researcher Danise Coon explains the Scoville heat scale, pepper variety development, how to grow chiles, and more!

In this episode of Mother Earth News and Friends, We’re spicing things up by dedicating our second 2023 Seasonal Crop Profile episode to learning about spicy chile peppers. Whether we can handle their heat like a champ or break out in immediate sweats, many of us can agree these peppers offer unmatched flavors and excitement for numerous dishes. Danise Coon, a research specialist with more than two decades of experience researching chile peppers, joins Kenny Coogan for a conversation all about these plants that pack a powerful punch.

Transcript: Learn About Chiles: What Makes Peppers Hot?

Scroll down for our episode transcript, and scroll to the bottom for our guest bio and show-note resources!

John Moore: [00:00:00] Welcome to the Mother Earth News and Friends podcast. Today we are spicing things up at Mother Earth News and Friends podcast by dedicating a whole episode to learning about spicy chile peppers. Whether we can handle their heat like a champ or break out in immediate sweats, many of us can agree these peppers offer unmatched flavors and excitement for numerous dishes.

Danise Coon, a research specialist with more than two decades of experience researching chile peppers, joins Kenny Coogan for a conversation all about these small plants that pack a powerful punch.

This is Mother Earth News.


John Moore: Have you ever wanted to meet our podcast presenters in person or take workshops from them? [00:01:00] You can by going to one of our many Mother Earth News Fairs each year. You can take hands-on workshops, attend information filled presentations, and shop from our many vendors specializing in DIY ideas, homesteading, and natural health.

Our 2023 fair schedule includes fairs in Kansas, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Learn more about all our fairs by going to www.MotherEarthNewsFair.com. Use the code FAIRGUEST for $5 off a checkout. Whichever fair you choose to join us at, we’re looking forward to seeing you there. Come visit your Mother at the 2023 Mother Earth News Fairs.

Introducing Danise Coon

Kenny Coogan: Good day everyone, and we appreciate you for joining us on another spicy Mother Earth News and Friends podcast. I am Kenny Coogan, and joining me today is Danise Coon, a research specialist. At Mother Earth News for 50 years and counting, [00:02:00] we have been dedicated to conserving our planet’s natural resources while helping you conserve your financial resources. Today we are going to learn about chile peppers.

Danise Coon is a research specialist for the Departments of Extension Plant Sciences and Plant and Environmental Sciences at New Mexico State University. She has a master’s degree in horticulture and over 20 years of experience with chile pepper research. She is also a native New Mexican with small farm roots in Northern New Mexico. Welcome to the podcast, Danise.

Danise Coon: Thank you so much. I’m very happy to be here today.

Kenny Coogan: I’m excited to have you because, as part of the podcast team, I get to decide the guests and the topics. And when thinking of a seasonal crop profile that I wanted to cover, I immediately thought of spicy chile peppers. I love them. I put hot sauce and [00:03:00] hot peppers on all of my meals.

Why Do People Like Spicy Foods?

Kenny Coogan: The first question, Danise, is, is there something wrong with people who like spicy foods? Why do people enjoy eating something that causes hiccups and heartburn or mild to severe sweating?

Danise Coon: Absolutely not. So, um, I think, you know, chile peppers are so diverse and there’s so many different flavor profiles that I think anyone on the planet could actually love a certain type of chile pepper. There’s a huge range of heat levels, but yeah, some of the hotter stuff definitely can cause some pain.

I know there’s a lot of people out there that we kind of term them super tasters. They don’t have a lot of the TRPV1 receptors in their mouth so they can actually enjoy really hot chile peppers and love the flavor and not be bothered too much by the heat. But then there’s other people who have a lot of those receptors and super hot stuff actually really bothers ’em.[00:04:00]

The other thing that chile peppers do that capsaicin, the chemical that makes chile peppers hot, does is it causes a little bit of a, an endorphin surge. So, so people kind of get this little release of endorphins when they eat it, and people say sometimes that chile peppers are addictive. So lots of different things that go on with our, our beloved chile peppers that make them wonderful to eat and consume. And there we go.

Chili vs. Chile Pepper vs. Pepper

Kenny Coogan: And, uh, you keep saying chile peppers and I introduced you as like a chile pepper, uh, researcher. What is a chili, and what is a chile pepper? And what is a pepper?

Danise Coon: Horticulturally, anything that comes from the flower of the plant or the plant is considered a chile pepper. And it’s spelled C-H-I-L-E. And then of course, P-E-P-P-E-R. So that’s a chile pepper.

Chili spelled with an I, C-H-I-L-I, [00:05:00] is the culinary dish that kind of consists of beans, usually a protein and chile, C-H-I-L-E, powder that makes this nice, wonderful, you know, chili that we, that we consume every now and then.

And then peppers is kind of just a general term for all chile peppers. Um, you can have sweet peppers or you can have hot peppers, and bell peppers and even sweet cherry peppers, something that doesn’t have any heat, they’re all cap capsicums, so they’re all in the same family. Uh, it’s just that sometimes people call them sweet peppers. And then the hot stuff people call hot peppers.

Capsaicin in Chiles: What Makes Peppers Hot?

Kenny Coogan: You were mentioning capsaicin. Is that the thing that makes chile peppers spicy and hot?

Danise Coon: Yeah, and the interesting thing about capsaicin is within the Solanaceae family there’s tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, tobacco. And a lot of those plants have lots of different alkaloids, and some of those alkaloids are kind of toxic to humans. [00:06:00] You can’t eat like potato leaves or tomato leaves without getting like a really serious stomach ache because of some of these alkaloids.

And capsaicin is the only alkaloid that chile pepper plants produce and it’s still edible by humans. A really interesting thing about chile peppers. So, yeah, that’s the only alkaloid. It is the chemical that makes chile peppers hot. There are 25 different capsaicinoids within capsaicin that provide different types of sensations in the mouth or on the skin. And, uh, it’s, it’s kind of complex.

Do Seeds Make Peppers Hot?

Kenny Coogan: And where are these chemicals found inside the fruit? Because people used to say the seeds, then people got a little showy and said, oh, it’s the ribs and not the seeds. And then I think people are going back and forth. So what does the research say?

Danise Coon: For a very long time, before what’s [00:07:00] termed a super hot chile or anything over one million Scoville Heat Units. That’s what we term super hots. Before those kind of came onto the market and were being grown and and produced, most chile peppers produce capsaicin glands or like these little glands that house the capsaicin oil, and they only produce them on the vein or the placenta inside the pod, and that’s where the seeds are attached as well. So that’s why a lot of people think the seeds are hot. They aren’t, it’s just that they’re in really close proximity to the placental tissue. And seeds are very porous. So you know, if you chop up a jalapeno, you’re breaking some of those capsaicin glands and that oil can seep very easily into the seeds. And so that’s why a lot of people think, you know, if they’re having like nachos and they have some jalapenos on those nachos and the seed, they bite into a seed and it’s really hot. It’s, it’s because some of that capsaicin oil seeped into that seed.

Now when [00:08:00] super hots came along, we actually discovered at New Mexico State University that not only are these particular types of chile peppers producing these capsaicin glands on the placental tissue, but they’re also producing it in the walls, and that’s why some of these super hot chiles are so hot.

So generally for about 90% of chile peppers out there, it’s produced in the placenta, but super hot chiles, which is anything over 1 million Scoville Heat Units, it’s produced in the placenta and in the walls.

Developed Cultivars of Chile Pepper

Kenny Coogan: Okay. So when you’re talking, I just made a connection. Are you or your facility creating new heirloom peppers? So I remember seeing like seed packs that say, Nu-Mex, like ‘NuMex’. There’s like the ‘Jalapeno Orange Spice’ and the, ‘Lemon Spice’ and things like that.

Danise Coon: Yeah. So anything that has the N-U-M-E-X in front of it was developed at [00:09:00] New Mexico State University, and we currently have just over probably …. So, so the, the chile breeding program at NMSU started back in the days of Fabian Garcia, who kind of invented this new Mexican chile pod type back in the early 1900s. And so that’s when the breeding program began. And since then we’ve had other breeders that have taken his place, and we have come up with just a little over 60 different NuMex varieties, and mainly for the New Mexico chile industry, which means they’re probably a, a New Mexican red or green chile. Red and green come from the same plant, but they’re, they’re used differently within the industry, so we consider ’em different industrial uses there.

We also produce jalapenos, cayennes, and paprika. So most of the varieties that NMSU has developed is in one of those realms. So yeah, anything that has the NuMex in front of it is developed there. And we are always looking at breeding new [00:10:00] varieties that are going to help our industry grow and help keep our growers and processors on the leading edge of this industry. Just because sweet peppers are such a cultural thing in New Mexico and such, you know, loved here.

So we try to produce varieties that have greater yield, have disease resistance, more flavor. Those are kind of some of the things that we’re focusing on.

Kenny Coogan: I was just gonna ask you, back in the 1900s, do you know why the breeding program started? Was it those things or was it they wanted something spicier or do they want bigger fruits or, you know, there’s so many different categories that you could breed for.

Danise Coon: Actually, all of those things that you said.

So Fabian Garcia, when he started his breeding program, was really looking at kind of the native chiles that were being grown in the pueblo areas of New Mexico. And they were all usually very small, very hot, and had very thin walls so that they could dry it down [00:11:00] easily and be used over the winter months.

But Fabian Garcia wanted something with thicker meat, bigger pods so that you’d get bigger yield, and something that you could actually roast the green and use it in food that way. And so he did lots of hybridization, and really, we call him the grandfather of New Mexico cuisine cuz it, uh, he started the whole craze of, of New Mexico green and red chile and, and it’s just really taken off since, since then.

Why Does My Chile Have No Spice?

Kenny Coogan: Going off script because I love hot pepper so much. So when you’re saying that, thinking about like the thicker walls, I think recently I bought some jalapenos. They had super thick walls and they were tasteless. They were not spicy. I didn’t, uh, seed them or get rid of their ribs or anything. I just chop ’em up like I normally do and I was so disappointed. Any ideas of what happened from the farm to my table? [00:12:00]

Danise Coon: Absolutely. So unfortunately when you get these pods, whether it’s a New Mexican pod type, whether it’s a jalapeno, and they have like really super thick walls, sometimes it’s because of water content. And if you have a much higher water content in the pod, it’s really gonna dilute the flavors.

And so that’s something that we have really been focusing on at NMSU. We released a couple of new varieties about 10 years ago, called our Heritage Varieties, and we really focused on not only the thicker walls, but to make sure that they had all of that traditional flavor. And we used some mass spec equipment and actually found that some of these varieties that we released had five times more flavor compounds than the previous predecessor.

And so, so, you know, being able to do that. And unfortunately, I mean, in the industry when you have higher water content, [00:13:00] you’re gonna have heavier weights. And so you’re gonna, that’s gonna turn into higher yield when it’s not necessarily a good thing if you have all that water in there.

Kenny Coogan: Who gets to taste all of these peppers before they go to the market?

Danise Coon: I do! I also have a very, very good student team. We have student research aids that come in and we kind of help them develop their palates for it and kind of teach them what they’re supposed to be tasting. And I’m not the only one that has to do this, I have a team that helps out as well.

Hot Pepper Scale: Scoville Heat Units

Kenny Coogan: And can we go back to the Scoville units? Historically, was it done by a person? Is it done by a machine ever?

Danise Coon: It was named Scoville Heat Units after Dr. Wilbur Scoville. He was a scientist, a chemist, and he really wanted to figure out, you know, how to really rate chile peppers with their heat levels, cuz he was able to recognize, he was a, a chile lover and loved to eat chiles and [00:14:00] recognized that there were different heat levels. And so, he kind of developed this organoleptic test, which is, you know, uh, that he has a panel of taste testers out there.

He would put samples in front of them and have them taste and then dilute it. And every time he would dilute it, he’d have them taste and they had to taste. And then when they didn’t feel the heat anymore, that was how many times it was diluted. And that was a Scoville Heat Unit. And so originally it was an organoleptic test, and these days we actually have a machine called, um, High Performance Liquid Chromatography. We put the samples in the machine, it runs them through and it has software that actually can pick out the different capsaicinoids and how much of those capsaicinoids are in it. So it’s super precise. Whereas the organoleptic test is probably a little more biased with different people, cuz different people taste differently. And so the computer program is a lot better and, and actually much more accurate.

Kenny Coogan: And when the people were tasting it, were they tasting [00:15:00] a, like, minced chile pepper or was it a liquid drop?

Danise Coon: Yeah, so it was probably more than likely, if I remember reading through the ASTA method, if I can remember that in my head right now. I would say it was more than likely a liquid sample that had probably a chile powder mixed into it at a certain concentration and then diluted from there.

Cooking with Chile Peppers

Kenny Coogan: All right, so let’s be a little bit more appetizing now. So how are chile peppers used in New Mexican cuisine? I’m assuming not all of them are blended into a pipette.

Danise Coon: Very true. Yes. So the cool thing about chile peppers is they are not only part of the cultural New Mexican cuisine, but they’re also used as a spice, as uh, a medicinal agent, as a coloring agent, and also as a natural food additive. So in New Mexican cuisine, we use the green chile and the red chile. [00:16:00] Green, of course, is the mature green stage of the pods, where if you leave those green pods on the plant even longer, they will turn red. And that’s where we get our red chile from. Green chile’s used in things like enchiladas, burritos. You know, anytime you see like a green chile, something or other, on a menu, that’s what that is.

Red chile can actually be used, it can be dried and used as a dried spice. It can also be used, the red chile can be rehydrated and turned into red chile sauce on things like red chile enchiladas or red chile burritos, even in the chili, C-H-I-L-I, that we were talking about earlier.

And then there’s the coloring. So red, super high red chile peppers you can extract the red color from, and that’s a natural red coloring agent. So lots of different uses for chile peppers.

Chile Pepper Potency and Personal Protection

Kenny Coogan: And when you’re working with chile peppers, how careful do you have to be to avoid touching your [00:17:00] eyes or other sensitive body parts?

Danise Coon: 100%. We actually have a whole training session that we put any of our research aids through. They’re always required to wear personal protective equipment, which includes gloves, a dust mask, or even a respirator, depending on how hot the samples are that they’re working with. Goggles for your eyes, and if they’re doing anything where there’s a lot of air movement, they actually have to wear a full hazmat suit.

So it’s just to keep everyone safe. I know over the 25 years I’ve been working with chile peppers, I’ve definitely gotten it in my eyes, gotten it on my skin, and not had a fun times. So it’s part of the, it’s a job hazard. It’s part of the job. And you think you get used to it, but you never do.

Kenny Coogan: When I bought a hot sauce, maybe a year or two ago, I had to sign a paper, like a waiver, saying that I [00:18:00] wasn’t gonna give it to anyone unwillingly.

So what about the chef or the cook in the kitchen and they buy like super spicy peppers or chile peppers. What should they do to like their equipment? Or I’m assuming they should be wearing gloves. Is there any other like PPE items that, that we should be thinking about?

Danise Coon: Absolutely. If, if, if you’re cooking with something that’s really hot, you definitely wanna take precautions.

If you’re de-seeding something or getting inside the pod, especially with super hot chiles, you wanna wear gloves. Um, even with some of the jalapenos and New Mexican type chiles, they’re hot enough to actually make your hands very uncomfortable for a while. You know, the capsaicin binds to that TRPV1 receptor and really the only thing known to break that binding site is the casein in dairy products. So, you know, if you have, you know, exposed, sensitive parts of your skin, you know, something like cold ice cream or cold yogurt or cold milk will [00:19:00] help kind of alleviate some of that and help break those binding sites. But yeah, that’s really the only thing that that’ll help. And, and yeah, if you’re cooking with it, you definitely wanna take precautions.

Kenny Coogan: I remember, um, a city or a town that had like a sriracha factory and they were complaining because of burning nasal passages, running eyes watering. Maybe akin to this, my neighbor once made homemade horse radish. The inside of the house was kind of like a bomb, you know, the spice.

Danise Coon: Yeah. It’s almost like pepper spray goes off in an enclosed area. And, and yeah, that happens all the time, especially if we’re, um, saving seed from stuff. Some of the equipment that we have really pushes that stuff up into the air and you, you have to be very careful. It’s like you, you know, you end up pepper spraying yourself and it’s. It’s not, it’s not fun.

Medicinal Qualities of Chiles

Kenny Coogan: In a 2002 episode of “Alias,” Cole tortures Sloane [00:20:00] by injecting a super concentrated derivative of capsaicin through what looks like acupuncture needles, and he was like putting ’em like in his hands. And I, you know, love spicy food. So I was like probably eating nachos was when I was watching this thinking like, oh, this is one of like the worst forms of torture ever.

But then today I was reading that when capsaicin is given in high doses, it relieves pain and not causes it, and that it is in a common ingredient in many topical pain relieving ointments. So what do you think about that? And should we be contacting JJ Abrams and changing the show from 21 years ago?

Danise Coon: So, yeah, absolutely. I mean, if capsaicin is used medicinally and put into a carrier that isn’t going to, you know, get into your eyes or up your nose or something like that, you know, if it’s in a topical cream, it absolutely has been [00:21:00] proven to show that it helps things, especially like arthritis or sore muscles. Because the same receptors that are pain receptors, uh, the TRPV1 that recognize the capsaicin and recognize it from chile peppers, are the same pain receptors for other types of pain.

So if you are taking the capsaicin and putting it on your skin, it’s gonna feel, it’s gonna feel like, like pain and your body will release endorphins to help fight that pain. And so I think that’s probably the main thing that happens with a lot of these topical creams, arthritis creams, muscle aching creams, that have the capsaicin in them is, it’s essentially a, you’re putting a little pain with the capsaicin to combat a bigger pain. And it, and it, it definitely has been proven to be effective.

Kenny Coogan: Do you know if these products are advertising that they have capsaicin in it or is it like a hidden secret?

Danise Coon: No, they absolutely do. So a lot of ’em, you know, next time you have [00:22:00] a a, you know, you work out too hard and your muscles are killing you, you know, and you decide, well, I’m gonna get some muscle cream, take a look at the ingredients. And I would be willing to bet that 90% of the time there’s capsaicin in there.

What Do Chile Pepper Researchers Do?

Kenny Coogan: I don’t know if you can, but can you summarize what you do as a chile pepper researcher, like over the course of like maybe a year? Because I’m assuming that there’s seasons to your job.

Danise Coon: So we have four major seasons in Southern New Mexico. We have a winter, spring, summer, and fall. And chile peppers cannot tolerate freezing. So we definitely have a season that where we can grow outside.

Uh, well since we’re in spring, I’ll start with spring. We are actually extremely busy right now planting, transplanting into the fields, and we’ll probably do that for a couple more weeks and get everything into the field. Then we have like a little bit of a lull and then things really start to grow. Then as a breeder, you wanna [00:23:00] start going through your field and looking for things that you’ve planted and making selections for certain characteristics, whether it’s high yield, disease resistance, flavor, color, you know, you’re gonna be doing that probably, um, most of the summer.

And then late summer into early fall, you’re gonna start harvesting. And that’s where it’s really fun in New Mexico. We have the Hatch Chile Festival. We have lots of festivals that kind of revolve around chile peppers because the green harvest is happening, we’re roasting green chile. After the green harvest, we’re doing red. And just, you know, a lot of the, um, New Mexican cuisine restaurants are, have nice fresh chile and, and people flock here to get their fix.

Then we kind of move into winter and that’s when we’re doing all of our seed extraction, probably DNA extraction, all those things in the lab where it’s kind of too cold to do anything outside.

Then say January, February, we kind of start up the next season again and we go through everything that we’ve got and sit down and, and figure out, you know, what we’re gonna do with [00:24:00] last year’s stuff and what we’re gonna move forward and any new projects, and then get started all over again in spring. So that’s kinda in a nutshell.

Kenny Coogan: In your department or unit or even the university, do you have an idea of how many chile pepper plants you put in the ground every year?

Danise Coon: So just off the top of my head, we just transplanted some of the research plots over the last two weeks, and if I had to kind of do a best educated guess, I’d say we probably put about 2000 pounds in the ground.

Kenny Coogan: And over the 20 years of experience with chile pepper research, can you give us like one or two kind of like discoveries like that you personally found interesting or that maybe made news that you, you know, were really excited about?

Danise Coon: So I was part of a team that discovered the first super hot chile pepper. It was the Ghost Pepper [00:25:00] or the Bhut Jolokia. Uh, we had been sent some seeds from one of our colleagues in Assam , India, and we spent probably about four or five years doing replicated trials on these, comparing them to some other chile peppers that we knew were really hot, and finally did discover that it was the first chile pepper that was over 1 million Scoville Heat Units. So I was on the team that did that.

And then I was also the individual that discovered that the super hots created the capsaicin vesicles on the walls. And, uh, not only on the placenta, but on the walls. I kind of came by that by accident. I was on camera for the History channel. They were recording a segment on super hot chiles and it was late in the afternoon. We had gone through a, a really rigorous day of filming and I had some of the scorpion peppers in my hand and it was a hot day cuz it’s really hot here in the summertime. So my hands were probably sweating. My face was sweating.

I hadn’t opened these pods. They were still closed. Um, they hadn’t been cut open or anything like that. Ended up, I hadn’t touched any other [00:26:00] chile peppers. I ended up like wiping some of the sweat off my face and my face just exploded on fire. And it’s because these super hots, you know, it can seep out of the walls. And so I was handling them and realized, I said, this is really strange. This shouldn’t have happened. So I kind of cut open these pods and started looking at ’em and kind of seeing some interesting things on the walls. And so we actually put ’em under electron microscopes and found the capsaicin glands on the walls. So that was a really cool discovery. Really interesting, and, and it was, it was a lot of fun to publish it.

Kenny Coogan: Do you think the best discoveries are from serendipity?

Danise Coon: Absolutely. 100%.

Kenny Coogan: All right. We’re gonna take a quick break in our conversation to hear a word from our sponsor, and when we return, we will learn all about growing chile peppers.


John Moore: Have you ever wanted to meet our podcast presenters in person or take workshops from them? You can by going to one of our many [00:27:00] Mother Earth News Fairs each year. You can take hands on workshops, attend information filled presentations, and shop from our many vendors specializing in DIY ideas, homesteading, and natural health.

Our 2023 fair schedule includes fairs in Kansas, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Learn more about all our fairs by going to www.MotherEarthNewsFair.com. Use the code FAIRGUEST for $5 off a checkout. Whichever fair you choose to join us at, we’re looking forward to seeing you there. Come visit your Mother at the 2023 Mother Earth News Fairs.

Sustainable Chile Pepper Growing

Kenny Coogan: We are back with Danise Coon, a research specialist at New Mexico State University.

So Danise, is there any research being done for sustainable chile pepper growing? Because I have a master’s in global sustainability and we always [00:28:00] are talking about the triple bottom line where we need to balance people, profit, and the planet. I think chile peppers are my favorite food item, so we gotta make sure they’re sustainable. So is there any research being done on that front?

Danise Coon: Absolutely. Um, I actually just recently switched under Dr. Stephanie Walker, who is the extension vegetable specialist at New Mexico State University. And she, her whole program is kind of focuses on sustainability.

We have several different research plots. Some of the things that we’ve implemented in our plots over the last couple of years are things like biodegradable mulch, you know, growing organically, doing things like solarization to help the soil and to kill weed seeds, you know, anything that’s biodegradable, whether it’s biodegradable trellising, or not using pesticides, you know, all of that stuff. Just really with a focus on sustainability is what we, we [00:29:00] really try to do in this program.

Dr. Walker was actually developed a machine harvestable green chile. For a long time, only the red chile varieties and jalapenos were able to be machine harvested and she developed a green chile variety that is now machine harvestable. And lot of our growers and producers are using it and being able to harvest a little more efficiently and more sustainable. And so, so yeah, lots and lots of sustainability issues and, and moving forward with with that focus.

Kenny Coogan: Can you attempt to describe what the machine looks like that is picking these peppers?

Danise Coon: So I wanna say the Chile Pepper Institute probably has some video of it on their website. It’s somewhere maybe in their Facebook feed. Essentially the one that we’ve been using is a single row harvester, and it has kinda like, if you imagine a DNA helix that [00:30:00] goes down and kind of goes to the base of the stem of the plant and then just kind of comes up. And as the DNA helix looks looking, I think, for lack of a better term, fingers kind of come up and just pull all those chile peppers off the plant. And we actually watched a larger machine do it on the ‘NuMex Odyssey’ last fall, and it was beautiful and amazing and the plant stayed upright and alive in the field and it harvested every single pod off the plant. So it was really beautiful to see and really exciting for the future of the chile industry.

Growing Chile Peppers at Home

Kenny Coogan: For those who wanna grow chile peppers at home, what temperature do most chile peppers like to germinate in?

Danise Coon: They like things a little bit warmer, so anywhere between 80 and 90 degrees. And so if you’re starting ’em indoors, it’s, it’s really good to have some bottom heat or some propagation mats that you can put your [00:31:00] seedlings, you can start your seedlings on. And keep that temperature between 80 and 90 degrees.

I know this year in particular, we had kind of a colder season in the spring and we direct seeded some chile almost two months ago. And generally it takes about 14 days, anywhere between 14 and 20 days, for a chile pepper seed to germinate. Because we had some really cold nights and some cold snaps during the day, and it was just a little cooler in general, it took our direct seeded chiles almost five weeks to actually germinate, which is kind of crazy. But they are, they’re up and they’re growing and things are looking good.

Kenny Coogan: And for like the backyard grower, what type of soil conditions do they prefer?

Danise Coon: Anything that’s probably high in organic matter and well drained. Chile pepper plants do not like to be soggy. If the soil is soggy a lot, they, you’ll get root rot really, really quickly. [00:32:00] So, um, something with high organic matter that’s a little more sandy, that has, that’s really well draining so that they’re, you can go from, from moist to a little bit, not completely drying out cuz you, you don’t wanna do that either, but just never sitting in water or never being super soggy.

Kenny Coogan: And can you tell me from seed to fruit, how long should we expect to wait for? And I ask that because I’m assuming cultivated varieties, cultivars, and maybe species are gonna affect how long you have to wait.

Danise Coon: So anything within the Capsicum annuum species, which is our jalapenos, bell peppers, sweet peppers, um, New Mexican types, cayennes, things like that in, within the Capsicum annuum. It’s anywhere between 120 and 130 days from seed to start fruiting.

Capsicum chinense, like your super hots and your habaneros, those are gonna take a little bit longer. They come from more temperate zones or [00:33:00] tropical areas, and so they really require nice, warm, humid conditions, and so they actually take anywhere between 130 and 150 days.

More Kinds of Chile Peppers

Kenny Coogan: Aside from the longevity, is there a difference between annual and biannual chile peppers? Because I’m assuming there’s like spicy and mild annuals and spicy and mild biannuals or perennials. Are they called biannuals or perennials?

Danise Coon: So chile peppers are considered annuals anywhere where we have freezing temperatures cuz they can’t handle the freezing temperatures. So places like southern Arizona, southern California, Florida, south Texas, where you don’t really get freezing temperatures, they’re actually considered perennials.

We have actually, in the chile breeding programs greenhouse, we have a Capsicum galapagoense, and it’s native to the Galapagos Islands. We have a plant in there that’s actually 12 years old, and it still produces pods and still goes through its phases and [00:34:00] has super woody stems, almost like a tree. It’s amazing. So yeah, as long as they aren’t subjected to freezing temperatures, they’re considered perennials.

Kenny Coogan: Do you know if there’s like a really expensive Peruvian pepper? Have you heard of that?

Danise Coon: Yes. So there’s a lot of stuff hitting the markets these days because, you know, chile peppers just take off, and when there’s something new, people are always interested.

So lots of the, the, the baccatum, it’s actually Capsicum baccatum that’s really grown in South America and a lot of the Latin countries. And there’s some really interesting varieties and different, um, heat sensations, different flavors. So if, if someone can get some good marketing going on, they can always do something good with, with new varieties.

Protecting Chiles from Pests and Diseases

Kenny Coogan: And for the backyard grower, and I’m sure you also experience this, what are some common pests and diseases that we should be looking out for?

Danise Coon: Unfortunately nothing is immune from pests and diseases. If you’re a backyard gardener, [00:35:00] aphids love chile peppers, but aphids are probably the easiest thing to get rid of.

So aphids. There’s also leaf hoppers and unfortunately leaf hoppers hairy a virus called the beet curly top virus, and it can actually be really devastating to growers. The chile pepper isn’t the leaf hopper’s main food source, but they’re attracted to color and for some reason their main food source is the same color as a lot of chile pepper varieties.

And so they’ll go and feed on it, but the minute they feed on it, they’ve already injected the virus, so. Then they realize, oh, that’s not my normal food source. And they go on to something else, but they’ve already injected the virus. So beet curly top is a big one.

We also have fungal pathogen called Phytophthora here in New Mexico. It was actually discovered here in New Mexico for the first time . It’s a waterborne pathogen. We do have kind of what we call a monsoon season in the late summer, early fall around here. And if we get sitting water in the fields, it can be really [00:36:00] devastating cuz it kind of moves fungal spores around and infects chile and is really devastating as well.

But those are kind of the main things. You know, bacterial spot. I know that birds and rabbits love to eat chile peppers, um, because they don’t, they don’t have any of the alkaloids or toxins in their leaves, so they’re super yummy. And deer as well. So you gotta think about all those things if you’re, uh, if you’re growing ’em in, in your backyard, if you have deer, squirrels, rabbits, birds, they’re all gonna be happy eating chile peppers.

Using Chiles in Food

Kenny Coogan: And after we get through all of that and you produce your peppers, your chile peppers, what is your favorite way to consume them or incorporate them into a meal?

Danise Coon: I really, really love New Mexican cuisine just because I was born and raised here. I grew up on it, so I think probably enchiladas with both red and green chile are probably my favorite dish. And then something that I really, really love to do at home is I have my own garden, of course, and I grow lots of jalapenos and serranos, and I [00:37:00] love to make fresh salsa with tomatoes, jalapenos, and serranos in the summertime.

Kenny Coogan: Do you ever can that salsa or it’s always fresh?

Danise Coon: Always fresh. So I did kind of experiment with fermentation last summer and, and made my own hot sauces. I, I still prefer some of the, the ones off the store shelf cuz I’m, I’m a budding fermentor. But it was, it was a lot of fun and a learning experience.

Kenny Coogan: Thank you so much, Danise, for speaking with us today. Our conversation on chile peppers has been very enlightening.

Danise Coon: I was very happy to chat with you.

Kenny Coogan: Wonderful. We thank you, the listener, for joining our podcast and encourage you to share it with your friends, colleagues, and family.

To listen to more podcasts and to learn more, visit our website, www.MotherEarthNews.com. You can also follow our social media platforms from that link to ask questions about future topics.

And remember, no matter how brown your thumb is, you can always cultivate kindness.

Podcast Credits:

John Moore: You’ve just [00:38:00] heard our episode with Danise Coon about spicy chile peppers. You can reach us at Letters@MotherEarthNews.com with any comments or suggestions.

Our podcast production team includes Jessica Mitchell, John Moore, and Kenny Coogan.

Music for this episode is “Travel Light” by Jason Shaw.

This Mother Earth News and Friends podcast is a production of Ogden Publications. Learn more about us at www.MotherEarthNews.com.


John Moore: Have you ever wanted to meet our podcast presenters in person or take workshops from them? You can by going to one of our many Mother Earth News Fairs each year. You can take hands-on workshops, attend information filled presentations, and shop from our many vendors specializing in DIY ideas, homesteading, and natural health.

Our 2023 fair [00:39:00] schedule includes fairs in Kansas, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Learn more about all our fairs by going to www.MotherEarthNewsFair.com. Use the code FAIRGUEST for $5 off a checkout. Whichever fair you choose to join us at, we’re looking forward to seeing you there. Come visit your Mother at the 2023 Mother Earth News Fairs.

Until next time, don’t forget to love your Mother.

Meet Danise Coon

Danise Coon is a research specialist for the departments of Extension Plant Sciences and Plant and Environmental Sciences at New Mexico State University. She has a masters degree in horticulture and over 20 years of experience with chile pepper research. She is also a native New Mexican with small farm roots in Northern New Mexico.

Additional Resources

Check out the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University.

 Our Podcast Team:

Jessica Mitchell, John Moore, and Kenny Coogan
Music: “Travel Light” by Jason Shaw

Listen to more podcasts at MOTHER EARTH NEWS PODCAST.

Check out the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Bookstore for more resources that may interest you.

Go to the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Fair page for an opportunity to see some of our podcast guests live.

The Mother Earth News and Friends Podcasts are a production of Ogden Publications.

Ogden Publications strives to inspire “can-do communities,” which may have different locations, backgrounds, beliefs, and ideals. The viewpoints and lifestyles expressed within Ogden Publications articles are not necessarily shared by the editorial staff or policies but represent the authors’ unique experiences.

Need Help? Call 1-800-234-3368