Among the treasures Christopher Columbus brought back from the New World was a bushy plant whose fiery fruit tasted to him like black pepper. This fruit became wildly popular in Spainand before long, people were calling them peppers, though in fact they're not related to the source of black pepper, Piper nigrum (a vining plant native to India). Most New World peppers are varieties and selections of Capsicum annuum. The Tabasco pepper derives from C. frutescens.
Attractive, shrubby plants range from less than a foot high to 4 ft. tall, depending on selection; some are attractive enough to be used as ornamentals. Edible peppers are divided into two basic categories, sweet and hot, according to the amount of capsaicin (the substance that causes the heat) they contain. One way to measure a pepper's heat level is by Scoville units (SU), which were developed through extensive taste tests. Sweet bell peppers, for example, are rated at 0 SU and can easily be eaten wholebut do the same with a volcanic 'Habanero' (rated at up to 600,000 SU) or 'Bhut Jolokia' (1 million SU), and your hair will catch fire.
Sweet peppers are ready to pick when they have reached good size (like those you see in markets). Pimientos should be picked only when red-ripe, but you can pick other sweet types green or ripe (red, yellow, orange, or purple, depending on the selection). The flavor typically sweetens as the fruit ripens. Pick hot peppers when they are fully ripe. Possible pests include aphids, whiteflies, cutworms, hornworms, stinkbugs, and Colorado potato beetles.
These peppers are mild in flavor, even when they ripen and change color. The group includes bell peppers, commonly used for stuffing and salads. Outstanding selections are 'California Wonder' (75 days from planting to harvest), 'Big Bertha' (72 days), 'Corno di Toro' (7080 days), 'Cubanelle' (7080 days), 'Gypsy' (60 days), and 'Peto Wonder' (75 days); all change from green to red as they mature (red fruit is very high in vitamin C). You can also buy selections that ripen to yellow ('Early Sunsation', 70 days), orange ('Valencia', 70 days, or 'Orange Blaze', 6575 days), purple ('Purple Beauty', 70 days), and even brown ('Choco Hybrid', 70 days). These hybrids are bred for high yield and disease resistance.
Many other sweet peppers are popular. Banana peppers (6575 days), shaped like the namesake fruit, are heavy bearers, with fruit ripening from green through yellow and orange to red; use them for frying and in salads. Bell-shaped pimientos (7585 days) are very sweetperfect for salads, cooking, and canning. Sweet cherry peppers are good for pickling. Long, cylindrical Italian peppers, such as 'Giant Marconi' (63 days), are great for grilling and roasting. Let them turn red before picking.
Hot peppers range from pea-size firebombs to fingerlike types reaching 67 in. long. All are pungent, ranging from mildly hot Italian pepperoncini (73 days; 500 to 800 SU) to the aforementioned, nearly incandescent 'Habanero' (8595 days; up to 600,000 SU). 'Anaheim' (74 days; 8001,400 SU) is a mildly spicy pepper used for making canned green chiles. 'Cajun Belle' is mildly spicy but also sweet (61 days; 1001,000 SU). Mexican cooking employs a wide variety of hot peppers, including 'Pasilla Bajio' (75 days; 100250 SU), 'Ancho' (dried red form of the fresh green 'Poblano', 7580 days; 1,2003,000 SU), 'Holy Mol' (85110 days, 700 SU), 'Jalapeo' (73 days; 2,5005,000 SU), and 'Serrano' (75 days; 5,00015,000 SU). 'Long Red Cayenne' (70 days; 30,00050,000 SU) is used both for cooking and for decoration; often dried for use in wreaths and arrangements. 'Tabasco' (80 days; 30,00050,000 SU) is a foundation for hot sauces (as are 'Habanero' and 'Jalapeo'). Thai cuisine also uses very hot peppers; one example is 'Thai Dragon' (70 days; 35,00045,000 SU). Indian food is not shy either, with 'Bhut Jolokia' (100120 days; 1 million SU).
These small, bushy plants, usually 1015 in. tall and wide, are often used for bedding and in pots. Rounded or conical, 12- to 2-in.-long fruit may be yellow, red, orange, or purple. Showy enough to take the place of flowers, they're typically quite hot and seldom used for cooking.
An exceptional plant with both ornamental and culinary uses is chili pequin (Capsicum annuum glabrisculum). Native to Texas, Mexico, and Central America, it forms a mounding shrub 25 ft. tall and wide and bears small white flowers continuously from spring to fall. Jewel-like, rounded fruit, about 12 in. in diameter and orange-red when ripe, decorates the plant in summer and fall, lending welcome color to the lightly shaded areas it favors. Fruit is quite hot (30,00050,000 SU) and is widely used in salsas, sauces, soups, and vinegars.