Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Plant Profile: Peppers

By Nina Berryman

'Tis the season for peppers! Peppers are another member of the Solanacaeae family (along with tomatoes, eggplants, potatoes, as you may remember from two weeks ago). Within the genus Capsicum, there are four species of peppers. For the purpose of this column we will focus only on the species Capsicum annum, which includes both sweet and chili (or hot) peppers. All of the peppers we are growing fall under this species, as do most of the peppers you will find in a conventional grocery store.

Capsaicin is the compound that makes hot peppers hot. It is most concentrated in the pepper’s interior walls, known as the placental walls. The gene that makes hot peppers hot is dominant, which means if a hot pepper and a sweet pepper cross pollinate the next generation of peppers will have more hot peppers than sweet peppers. Although peppers can self pollinate (meaning only one flower is necessary to produce the next generation of peppers), insects often go from flower to flower and mix up the pollen. Because of this, cross pollination is common between peppers; if you have two different varieties growing next to each other and you let them self-seed themselves next year, you will have new types of peppers. If you have a hot pepper in the mix, most of the “volunteer” peppers the next year will by hot.

All sweet peppers start out green, and then ripen to red, yellow, orange, purple or black. This is why peppers of these colors are usually more expensive in grocery stores- because they need to ripen longer on the plant and therefore take up more precious time in the field. Green peppers are considered unripe and not eaten in most parts of world except in American cuisine. Peppers are actually perennial plants, but only in frost-free climates. Hotter pepper varieties can hold up to colder, wetter conditions.

Sources: Seed to Seed, Suzanne Ashworth

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