Did you know peppers are native to the Americas?
Did you know peppers are native to the Americas?
Sweet Pepper: Capiscum annum
Chile Pepper: Capiscum frutescens
See "Peppercorn" for information on how ground pepper is made and the plant from which it comes.
USDA Hardiness Zones 4 to 11
Peppers are native to the tropics where they are perennial shrubs that grow from 6 to 8 feet in height. In temperate climates, they are grown as annuals. They need an average temperature of 65 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit to flower and set fruit.
All pepper plants have a bushy appearance, but the peppers they produce range in color, size, shape, and spiciness. In order for a pepper to be considered a sweet pepper, it must score near zero on the Scoville Scale, which measures the levels of capsaicin - the active compound responsible for the “heat” of hot peppers. Bell peppers, pimento peppers, and pepperoncis are popular examples of sweet pepper varieties, all of which range significantly in size, shape and color. Whereas the bell pepper is a boxy fruit, the pimento has a plump, round shape and the pepperoncini is typically long and slender.
Peppers have a naturally upright growth habit, so they often benefit from staking to help support brittle branches as they become heavy with fruit.
Peppers are most commonly propagated by seed and grow during the warm season. They will not germinate in frost or cold temperatures, but can be started indoors 8 to 10 weeks before the last frost to prepare them for spring planting. Soil temperature must be at least 70 degrees Fahrenheit for seeds to germinate, and plants require between 12 to 16 hours of light for optimal growth.
Pepper seeds are started three or more to a pot, using bottom heat if necessary to keep the soil warm, speeding the germination process. The soil is kept moist and germination occurs between 7 and 24 days.
The weakest of the seedlings is removed and the others planted outside so that they provide shade for each other. The shade protects their fruits from sunscald and increases the yield.
One week before transplanting, compost or fertilizer is introduced to the soil to help retain the moisture pepper plants require. Pepper plants prefer soil with a pH between 6.2 and 7.0, although they can tolerate slightly alkaline conditions. When planting, match sticks are sometimes placed in the hole with each plant to provide sulfur, which helps pepper plants to thrive.
Plants are weeded regularly, and staked or caged to prevent larger pepper plants from bending or breaking. For larger fruit plants such as bell peppers, plants are sprayed with a solution of one teaspoon Epsom salt mixed with one gallon of water to provide magnesium, once when the plant begins to bloom, and once ten days after.
Sweet peppers are harvested as soon as they reach the desired size (for sweet bell pepper types, at least 3.5 to 4 inches), but still green. However, they are most flavorful when allowed to fully mature and ripen. Peppers start out green on the plant, but most sweet pepper varieties change colors as they ripen, quickly turning to yellow, orange, red and even purple or chocolate colors in some varieties. As a general rule, the less green, the sweeter a pepper tastes. The longer a pepper is left on the plant, the sweeter and higher in Vitamin C content it becomes. Hot varieties are spicy when green, but get much hotter upon changing color.
Once peppers begin to change colors, they ripen quickly, so should be closely monitored. After they turn their final color, they deteriorate very quickly on the plant and must be picked. A sharp knife or scissors are used to cut the peppers cleanly from the plant.
Sweet peppers that are harvested in cool fall weather and have just begun to change colors will continue to ripen when kept in a warm room indoors for up to three days.
Peppers can be kept in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to ten days after being harvested.
They can also be dried, using a conventional oven, preheated to 140 degrees Fahrenheit (or lowest possible temperature). They are washed, cored, seeded, cut into one inch strips, steamed for 10 minutes and baked in the oven until brittle. They are then stored in dry storage bags or containers.
Pepper plants are native to Central and South America. They were first brought to Spain in 1493 by Spanish explorer, Christopher Columbus, following his first voyage to the Americas, and spread from there throughout Europe and Asia.
It was Columbus who gave the plants their misleading name, peppers, as at the time, black peppercorns were a prized spice in Europe. Columbus brought samples of a wide variety of peppers back to Europe and although ineffective in producing black pepper, the varieties Columbus brought over became widely popular, and later spread to Asia, Africa, and throughout the world.
The top five commercial producers of bell peppers are: People’s Republic of China, Mexico, Indonesia, Turkey and Spain, according to United States Department of Agriculture data from 2011.
Sweet peppers are used in a variety of culinary dishes. They can be eaten raw, grilled, baked, or fried. They are often included in pasta and rice dishes, salads, soups and stews, and are often stuffed and baked.
Sweet peppers add more than a splash of bright color and flavor to culinary dishes. They also pack a powerful combination of vitamins, phytochemicals, carotenoids and nutrients to help maintain a healthy body.
Red and orange-hued sweet peppers such as bell peppers are high in the carotenoid, beta carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A. Beta carotene boasts high antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits, and some studies suggest that people who eat four servings of beta carotene-rich fruits and vegetables have a lower risk of developing heart disease or cancer.
Bell peppers are also high in the carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin, which are also high in antioxidants and occur in high concentrations in the retina, lens and macula of the eye. They protect the eye from harmful high-energy light waves such as UV rays from the sun, cataracts. Lutein and zeaxanthin also slow the progression of macular degeneration.
The capsaicin in bell peppers has numerous benefits. Studies indicate that it lowers LDL (bad cholesterol) levels, helps control blood sugar levels in diabetics, eases inflammation, improves digestion, eases constipation, controls colds and fevers, and provides pain relief from sprains and bruises and conditions such as arthritis and rheumatism.
Sweet peppers are very high in vitamin C, which contributes to immune system health and keeps the skin healthy. Of the bell pepper family, red bell peppers have the highest concentration of vitamin C.
The bell pepper is also a good source of vitamin E, a key element for a strong immune system, healthy eyes, hair and skin.
The vitamin B6 content in sweet peppers is essential for nervous system health and cell renewal.
Bell peppers are valuable sources of sulfur, which is the third most abundant mineral in the body after calcium and magnesium. Sulfur is essential in bone, muscle, and connective tissue health. Sulfur also plays an important role in the body’s detoxification, metabolic functions, and electron transport system.