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In Louisiana, peppers are the hottest thing growing

Louisianans have appreciated the enjoyable qualities of spicy foods for generations. The fire in Louisiana cooking is provided primarily by the use of hot peppers or products made from them like red pepper and hot sauce. A backyard garden wouldn’t be complete without a few pepper plants — hot and sweet — to pick from.

The pepper is native to the tropics of Central and South America and has probably been cultivated for thousands of years. When Columbus reached the Caribbean, he tasted a vegetable being grown by the native population. Its sharp taste reminded him of the familiar black pepper, so he called the new plant “pepper,” as we do today. Columbus, however, was no botanist and was mistaken. The plant was not even related to black pepper — Piper nigrum — but belongs to an entirely different genus — Capsicum.

From their America origins, peppers were spread to Europe, Africa, India and Asia and became an important part of many regional cuisines. They are a member of the solanaceae or nightshade family, which makes them relatives of the tomato, potato, tobacco, eggplant and petunia.

Peppers may be classified as sweet, mild or hot. The degree of heat is related to the amount of capsaicin in the fruit. This chemical is concentrated in the pepper pod where the seeds are attached and in the veins of the inner wall. Peppers are at the peak of their hotness when fully ripe and are usually five times hotter when they are mature compared with the green or immature fruit.

Based on the amount of capsaicin they generally contain, pepper varieties can be classified as sweet, mild, hot and very hot. Remember, you cannot always identify a hot pepper by its shape or color. Various peppers are classified as follows:

4 Sweet: sweet bells, pimento, sweet banana and Gypsy.

4 Mild: Mexi-Bell, cherry, NuMex Big Jim, Anaheim, ancho, pasilla, espanola and cascabell.

4 Hot: jalapeno, mirasol, Hungarian wax (hot banana), serrano, cayenne and tabasco.

4 Very hot: chiltepin, Thai, habanero, Scotch bonnet.

Sweet bell peppers are commonly planted in the home garden. They have a blocky shape with three or four lobes on the bottom. For many years gardeners could choose only one color of bell pepper, a green that matured red (red bell peppers are just ripe green ones). Through modern breeding efforts, we can now grow bell peppers that mature red, yellow or orange and may be purple, lavender or chocolate-brown instead green when unripe.

Many pepper varieties are attractive enough to use as ornamentals in the landscape as well as in the vegetable garden. Indeed, a number of varieties called “ornamental peppers” have been selected for the colorful fruit or foliage. The fruit of ornamental peppers is perfectly edible, although generally quite hot.

Growing peppers

Mid-March to mid-April is an ideal time to plant peppers in the garden. Bell peppers are more sensitive to heat than other types of peppers, so plant them early in the spring garden. Hot peppers and other sweet peppers are much more heat tolerant and can be planted through the summer.

Choose a sunny area because peppers need full sun to blossom and set fruit. Also, try to select a spot protected from the wind because pepper plants have shallow root systems and brittle branches. In the mid- to late summer, a stake will help keep the plant upright as it grows taller.

Plant peppers in well-drained beds enriched by compost and an all-purpose fertilizer. Once they are planted, peppers should be watered-in with your favorite soluble fertilizer. Sidedress pepper plants with additional fertilizer every four to six weeks with one tablespoon per plant.

Space peppers 1 1/2 to 2 feet apart. Depending on the variety, most peppers grow about 2 to 3 feet tall. A half dozen plants — four sweet, one mild and one hot — should provide a family with a summer-long crop.

Peppers can be harvested at any stage of development. Bell types are usually harvested when firm and full size but still green. They also may be harvested when mature and turning red, orange or yellow, depending on variety. Other types of peppers vary, with jalapenos generally harvested green and cayenne peppers harvested mature red. But it’s largely up to you to decide.

When you’re harvesting the fruit, hold the branch and snap or cut the fruit off carefully. Remember, pepper plants are brittle and break easily.

Dan Gill is a LSU AgCenter Horticulturist.