Are the different names for this species confusing? Does the chili come from China or from Cuba? Neither! The scientific name is a mistake made by a Dutch physician at the end of the 18th century, who believed the chili originated in China, and named it accordingly. Instead, like all chilis, the species comes from South America and is very popular in the Caribbean Islands. It got its Swedish name from the Cuban capital, but also after the species’ most well known variety, the habanero.
C. chinense is homogenous in its growth pattern. The plants grow quite low and compact—they’re often around 12/3'–2' (50 cm–60 cm.) tall and they’re sometimes wider than they are tall. They have beautiful dark green foliage, and the leaves are slightly dented. One of their recognizable features that is common to almost all varieties is that the leaves grow in pairs with the leaves opposite each other, and the next pair of leaves grows at 90 degrees from the pair below. The plants flower abundantly, and it is not uncommon that they drop flowers due to non-pollination. Doesn’t seem to matter, since a lot of fruit is still produced. These plants love heat and high humidity!
This species has many varieties, and most of them are very hot—they are often around 8–9 on the SHU, even though there are a few very mild varieties, such as Bellaforma and Habanero Apricot, for example. Apart from the heat, the varieties in C. chinense often have a fruity flavor that makes them very appreciated and useful in cooking, especially in different types of sauces.
Habanero Peach is one of the many habaneros. The plant has the typical growth pattern, with rather sturdy growth and slightly dented leaves.
You’ll find the hottest chilis in this species, those with 10+ on the SHU. Naga Morich, Bhut Jolokia, Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, and Carolina Reaper are all C. chinense varieties; some even have genes from C. frutescens. The work of most modern breeding is mostly about finding a new hot variety that can dethrone Carolina Reaper, which has held the title of “world’s hottest chili” since 2013. In New Mexico, research is at the other end of the spectrum, where they have produced milder varieties that still retain the habanero’s fruity aroma. These varieties often carry the word NuMex in their names, like NuMex Suave Orange. Suave means soft/mild.
Floridians have a soft spot for the Datil habanero and they have dedicated a harvest festival to it, which is celebrated in St. Augustine every fall. This variety is also popular on the Mediterranean island of Menorca, which the inhabitants insist is its birthplace, while others maintain that the Datil comes from Cuba.
Some Facts About Havana Chili Peppers
Development: 8–10 months from sowing to harvest
Strength/heat: 1–10+++; most common is 8–9
Other: These varieties are extremely flavorful and at their best when fresh. They freeze very well. Cut them into wedges if you want to dry them, and use an oven or a dehydrator because they do take time. Dried whole fruits must be cut open and checked for mold inside before they are ground into powder. Always use gloves when handling the hottest varieties. As the plants are slow to develop, it is worth the time and work spent to overwinter your favorites.
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Excerpted with permission from Chilis: How to Grow, Harvest, and Cook with Your Favorite Hot Peppers, with 200 Varieties and 50 Spicy Recipes by Kerstin Rosengren and Eva Robild. Copyright 2019 by Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.