Helen Simpson, from the Mushroom Shed, tells you all you need to know about growing chillies. She has also written articles about growing basil, brassicas, coriander, cucurbits, garlic, ginger & turmeric, mint, rhubarb, strawberries, tomatoes and lesser known herbs.
Anyone who has tasted or handled a hot chilli will be familiar with their stimulant effects – increased perspiration, burning sensation in the mouth, running nose and eyes and laxative effect – dare I go any further.
These sensations vary with the type of chilli and are due to the amount of the chemical compound ‘capsaicin’ contained in the chilli. This compound varies from negligible in the standard capsicum to a significant amount in the very hottest chillies.
Chillies and capsicums all belong to the Capsicum genus, which contains several different species and are native to Central and South America. Numerous varieties exist – some pointy and small, others round, oval and fleshy and some look like miniature hats (e.g. the Emperors Hat or Scotch Bonnet). Colours include green, yellow, red, purple, orange, chocolate and black.
How hot is a chilli?
Chillies are generally measured in heat units using the Scoville Scale, which was developed in 1912 by Wilbur Scoville. The heat units are related to the amount of capsaicin in the chilli.
For example (and depending on your reference source), the Cayenne and Rocoto Chillies have Scoville heat units of around 35,000, the Habanero around 300,000, the Trinidad Scorpion and Naga (ghost) chilli 800,000 to 1,000,000 or higher. Wikipedia puts the Carolina Reaper chilli at around 1,600,000 to 2,200,000 heat units.
Milder chillies include the Jalapeno (2,500 to 8,000). The humble capsicum is neutral.
Some of you may have heard of the Padron chilli, of which 1 in 10 are reported to be extremely hot and the rest not so. However I’ve heard varying reports on the authenticity of the 1 in 10 probability – some experimenters reporting that they are all very hot.
Chillies can be started from seed. However, as the seed can burn, care should be taken and thin plastic gloves worn. Start the seeds indoors in a small punnet or pot in October/November and transplant outdoors only when weather is consistently warm – usually early December.
Chillies generally only thrive in hot, sunny weather, so in Melbourne they have a limited growing season and are usually grown as annuals. For this reason, you may prefer to begin with a small chilli plant rather than seed, to get a head start.
With care and management, chillies grown in pots can have their season extended by bringing the pot up on a sunny veranda or placing in a greenhouse when the weather starts to cool.
The Rocoto (or Manzana) chilli is one exception. Whilst severe or successive frosts can damage the plant, it usually recovers sufficiently to grow even bigger the next year. Eventually it will be the size of a large bush and you may have to cut it back with a pair of large clippers to deter its sprawling habit. It will most likely produce more chillies than you can use. Take care – the chillies from the Rocoto can be very hot.
Around late summer, fruit starts to form. Depending on the type of chilli, it is usually green, before ripening to its final colour which may be red, purple, black, orange, yellow etc. It can be picked and used green, however will be hotter if you wait until it ripens. Fruit may be on the bush right into winter.
Some varieties lend themselves to drying e.g. Cayenne or Birdseye chillies. They can be strung up in bunches. The larger, fleshy chillies are not as successfully dried like this, so are best used fairly quickly.
For those people seeking out the hottest chilli available, try the Naga (or ghost) chilli, Trinidad Scorpion, or Carolina Reaper (if you can find it here). But beware – they are extremely hot. Other hot chillies going down the scale of heat are the Scotch Bonnet, Habanero or Tepin, and then Thai, Birdseye, Rocoto and Cayenne.
For those seeking a milder chilli, try the Jalapeno or Emperors Hat – the Emperors Hat is also a chilli that can survive a Melbourne winter if you are lucky.
Chilli heat management
If you have eaten a chilli that is too hot, milk or yoghurt helps to relieve the burning sensation. It is reported that water tends to just spread the heat, rather than relieve it. Care should be taken handling chillies as the heat from the juice will spread onto anything you touch.
And finally …
Being a strong irritant, capsicum spray is used by the Australian Police Force.