Chilli and its origins
The chilli pepper is a fruit from the capsicum bush and originated in the Americas, where it has been used as a food since ancient times. When Christopher Columbus came across chillies in the Caribbean, he called them peppers because of their hot taste.
A physician on Columbus' second voyage to the West Indies in 1493 bought the plant to Spain, and from Mexico, a Spanish colony at the time, chillies spread to Asia and became part of Asian cuisine.
Chilli peppers are increasingly popular with gardeners not just because of their role in global cooking but because of their decorative value.
When in fruit and flower, often at the same time, they make highly ornamental plants; varieties range from long, slim Thai chillies to short, squat Scotch bonnets, with shades ranging from bright yellow and orange to scarlet, violet and near black, sometimes all on the same plant.
The vibrancy of the colour is enhanced by the fruits' glossy skin. Flowers that precede the fruits from early summer are small, white and bell-shaped.
How to plant:
For best results the chilli plant needs a lot of warmth and sun but will grow outside in a warm temperate climate, in a sunny position. However growing them in a greenhouse or a polytunnel is a safer option in cooler or more unpredictable climates.
Chilli plants suit container growing because they can be easily moved outside to enjoy warm weather, and make an attractive addition to the patio or balcony at the same time. They also suit a sunny kitchen windowsill. Chillies can be purchased in pots, usually flowering and with baby fruits. They are available in increasingly wide ranges from the garden centre, making them a very accessible plant for a novice gardener. All that needs to be done to guarantee a successful crop is to water and feed them, then pick off the ripe fruits in late summer.
The plant is relatively easy to sow from seed and needs similar conditions to tomatoes. A heated propagator is ideal. Sow the seed at 20oC in pots, cells or trays in late winter or early spring, using seed compost, and when the first true set of leaves develops, transfer into individual 9cm pots and grow them on at 18oC.
When the plants reach about 20cm tall, pinch out the growing tips to encourage full, bushy plants that are not top-heavy. When the roots fill the pot, transfer to individual large containers about 25-30cm diameter, or plant out in well-drained, moisture retentive soil in a sunny position, first hardening off gradually.
Chilli Plants might need staking, depending on variety, and should be fed weekly with a liquid high-potassium fertiliser (XXX) when flowers form.
Pick the chillies when they turn their full colour, bearing in mind that the bushes need to be cleared from outdoors if it is late in the season and the threat of frost exists. To hasten ripening, a fleece or cloche can be used.
Use fresh or dried in cooking for a fiery, pungent addition to soups, sauces or casseroles. Dry them and string together to create decorative garlands.
Chilli plants can be overwintered and coaxed into flower again, but the danger with this is that they can attract pests and weaken. Usually chillies are started using heat and are an annual.
In the greenhouse, aphids and red spider mite can be a problem; regular misting or the use of XXX helps prevent these pests destroying the plant.
Diseases and pests affecting growth:
- White fly
- Corn borer
- Black cutworm
- Leaf terricolous
- Leaf miner
- Mole crickets
- Powdery mildew
- Grey mould
- Bacteria-related diseases
Did you know: Interesting Chilli facts
Chillies contain high levels of the chemical capsaicin, the primary ingredient in the irritant weapon, pepper spray.
Their heat is measured in Scoville heat units. Thus sweet peppers measure 0 on the scale while jalapenos rank from 2,500 upwards. For the novice, however, a rough guide is that the smaller the chilli, the hotter.