Red, and Green, Hot Chile Peppers

Learn all about everyone’s favorite spicy vegetables, hot chile peppers, from the common chilies to the Ghost Pepper.

  • Today there are more than 3,000 identified chile varieties, from the mildest bell peppers to the hottest Ghost peppers.
    Photo by Jim Long
  • Spicy and hot, ‘Fish’ peppers are an old variety that was used in fish and shellfish cookery.
    Photo by Jim Long
  • 'Chiltepin’ peppers are the official state native pepper of Texas. Experts believe this tiny round pepper, about the size of a peppercorn, is the original wild chile.
    Photo by Jim Long
  • The newest record holder for the world's hottest pepper is the ‘Trinidad Moruga Scorpion’ which registers on the heat scale at 2.2 million SHU.
  • Hot peppers induce a feeling of euphoria in the eater—similar to the endorphin rush of going for a run or having a good belly laugh.
    Photo by Jim Long

  • Photo courtesy
  • ‘Annuum’ is the most common species and the most widely cultivated of the five. It includes the ‘Ancho,’ ‘Bell’, ‘Cayenne,’ ‘Cherry,’ ‘De Arbol,’ ‘Jalapeno,’ ‘Mirasol,’ ornamental types, New Mexican types (shown here), ‘Paprika,’ ‘Pimiento,’ ‘Pequin,’ ‘Serrano,’ Squash-type and Wax peppers.
    Photo courtesy

Our taste in food often determines what we grow in our garden and our exposure to a wide variety of ethnic foods reflects that. With easy access to Thai, Mexican, Ethiopian, Indian, and other foods, the flavors of those entice us to grow the ingredients that make those foods distinctive. Chile peppers are a good example of an ingredient that has gained wide popularity.

A decade ago if you shopped for pepper plants or seeds at a garden center or greenhouse, you would likely find Bell peppers, Sweet Banana, possibly Jalapeño and Cayenne. Little else was available, mostly because customers weren’t asking for anything hotter.

Times have changed and growers and seed companies now offer dozens, even hundreds of varieties of hot peppers with varying degrees of heat. As people are exposed to more diverse food cultures, as well as the increasing ethnic diversity of people across the country, sales of hot and still-hotter peppers are off the charts.

Many Americans have developed a taste for heat, and not just modest heat, but heat with a sting. One need only look at the rapid rise in popularity of the Bhut Jolokia, or Ghost pepper (also sometimes listed as the Naga Jolokia). While not everyone wants to actually eat what was once considered the world’s hottest pepper, lots of people are growing and experimenting with it in sauces, salts and seasonings.

I began growing Ghost peppers nearly a decade ago when they were just barely rumored to exist. I grew the pepper both out of curiosity and because I enjoy very hot foods. Years of experimenting and recipe-testing with this pepper has given me great respect for this Indian heirloom pepper.

The Family Tree

Archeological evidence indicates chiles have been in cultivation by people in Central and South America for thousands of years. Today, there are over 3,000 identified varieties, from the mildest Bell peppers to the hottest of the hot. The botanical genus to which all chiles belong is Capsicum, which is a member of the wider Solanaceae, or nightshade family, meaning chile peppers are close relatives to others in the nightshade family, including tomatoes, potatoes, tobacco and eggplants.



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