pictured above, from top left: Jalapeno (green), Sweet Banana (yellow), Santa Fe Grande (yellow), Cayenne Long Thin (red), Ckylon (red), Topepo Rosso (red), Habanero (orange), Black Hungarian (black + red), Anahiem (green)
When it comes to garden planning, one of the most common statements I hear from new (and some experienced) gardeners is, I just don’t know which variety to pick! We’ve all been there before: the seed catalogs spread out, everything looks really good, but there is a nagging question in the back of our minds as to which varieties are the best, most practical choice for our gardens.
Peppers in particular are an incredibly diverse group. From sweet and juicy to scorching hot, and everything in between, it can be a daunting task to select the right varieties for your garden. I can’t possibly begin to cover every known variety, but what I can do is provide a good framework for doing your homework and selecting varieties for your garden. Here are a few tips for breaking the pepper code:
pictured above: Habanero
Understanding the Scoville Scale
Peppers get their heat or spicy quality (pungency) from the chemical compound, capsaicin. As you would expect, the higher the concentration of capsaicin, the more pungent the pepper will be. The unit for measuring this concentration is a Scoville Unit, and the Scoville Scale is the tool we have to compare various types of peppers relative to their pungency.
A pepper’s Scoville rating is a bit of a moving target, as there can be a lot of variation even within the same variety. Growing conditions (soil type, available nutrients, humidity, watering frequency, etc.), maturity, and natural variations in genetic expression all factor into the differences you might experience when sampling a particular variety. As a result, you will typically see a range rather than a specific number assigned to a pepper variety.
The scale ranges from 0 to upwards of 2 million Scoville Units. Here is just a sampling of how some of the more common varieties you might grow in your garden rank and a good point of reference for comparing lesser known varieties:
[ezcol_1fifth] [/ezcol_1fifth] [ezcol_1fifth]0
100K – 500K
800K – 2M +
[/ezcol_1fifth] [ezcol_2fifth]Bell, Sweet Banana
Pepperoncini, Pimento, Paprika
Jalapeno, Fresno, Anahiem, Poblano
Serrano, Cayenne, Tabasco
Bhut Jolokia (Ghost), Trinidad Scorpion[/ezcol_2fifth] [ezcol_1fifth_end] [/ezcol_1fifth_end]
pictured above: Santa Fe Grande (ripens from green to yellow to orange to red)
Almost all peppers start out a shade of green (sometimes green camouflaged in a blackish purple) and as the pepper matures, it will change colors. Some varieties make only one change, from green to red, orange, yellow, white, brown, or purple, while other varieties may go through several color changes as they move through different stages of maturity.
Sweet and hot peppers come in just about every color imaginable, so broad statements about color and flavor/pungency profile don’t really fit. In general, the more mature a pepper gets, the more developed the flavor and the stronger the characteristics of a particular variety come through. Thus, an immature green bell pepper is going to be less sweet than its mature red, yellow, or orange counterpart, and a mature red jalapeno is going to pack a bigger punch than a still-maturing green jalapeno.
pictured above, from the left: Santa Fe Grande (yellow + red), Habanero (orange), Sweet Banana (yellow), Serrano (green + red), Cayenne Long Thin (green + red), Jalapeno (green), Anaheim (green), Topepo Rosso (green + red)
Finding the Right Pepper for the Job
As is always the case, finding the right variety for your garden depends on what you intend to do with the peppers once they are harvested. There are as many culinary applications as there are pepper varieties, but sometimes determining what do with a particular variety can be tricky, especially when recipes that specifically call for Red Mushoom or Fatalii peppers are more challenging to find. But if you know what you want to do with your pepper harvest, or know what you could do with that type of pepper, the decision making process becomes much easier.
Here are some specific recommendations for some of the most common garden to table applications:
pictured above: Topepo Rosso
Fresh Eating: If you are looking for a pepper to slice up and enjoy as a mid-day snack or add to your garden salad, the usual go-to is a bell-type pepper. Bullnose and King of the North are nice choices for larger bell-types. If you like to nibble in the garden or have a little gardener-in-training, consider one of the many mini bell varieties. I personally really enjoy the pimento-type sweet peppers, like Topepo Rosso, which are a little more compact than a traditional bell, but make up for it with a fleshier bite and more intense flavor.
pictured above: Anahiem
Cooking: Looking for a good pepper to throw on the grill, sauté, or stuff ala your favorite Mexican joint? What you are looking for is commonly called a “frying pepper.” These are your Poblano, Anaheim, and Cubanelle peppers. They tend to be somewhere in the middle as far as flesh thickness, elongated, usually (but not always) lean more towards the sweet/mild heat end of the spectrum, and the flavor is often enhanced by cooking.
pictured above: Black Hungarian
Salsa: Jalapeno and Serrano are the traditional standard for salsa making, but there are a lot of similarly-suited varieties that can take your salsa making up a notch. Look for varieties that have a little body (thicker flesh and a good crisp) and heat. Try cherry-types like Joe’s Round, jalapeno look-a-likes such as Santa Fe Grande, and Hungarian Wax peppers.
pictured above: Sweet Banana
Pickling: Banana, Pepperoncini, Jalapeno, and cherry-type peppers are common choices for pickled peppers. Varieties that are well-suited for pickling can be hot or sweet, and tend to have more flesh for that perfect pickled bite. Some varieties will remain firm after processing better than others, so look for varieties that specifically indicate “good for pickling” if you want firmer pickled peppers. Black Hungarian pickles beautifully, and a mix of yellow, orange, and red Santa Fe Grande makes a beautiful pickled sandwich spread (one of those varieties that doesn’t hold up as well, but is still really tasty).
pictured above: Cyklon
Hot Sauce: Any type of hot pepper from the humble Jalapeno to the beastly Bhut Jolokia (the so-called Ghost Pepper), can be transformed into a delicious vinegar-based condiment with endless variations. Hot sauce is a good method to extract flavor from thin-fleshed varieties like Cayenne, Tobasco, or habanero-types. It is also a good application for small ornamental type peppers, which tend to be too fussy to process for other applications and the flavor is often enhanced when combined with vinegar and other aromatics.
pictured above: Cyklon
Drying: From pepper flakes and ground pepper to whole dried chiles, drying is a great way to utilize the pepper harvest. You’re probably already familiar with Cayenne and Paprika, but that is only scratching the surface of the possibilities. Thin-fleshed varieties are particularly well-suited for drying; look for key words such as “seasoning” and “spice” in the descriptions. Some not as common varieties that are great for drying: Fish, Bishop’s Crown, White Habanero, and Cyklon (which I personally think makes the best red chile flakes).
pictured above: Joe’s Round
Days to Maturity: Though peppers are a tropical, heat-loving vegetable, they will grow just about anywhere with a good head start indoors. If you are a northern gardener like me, you’ll get your best yields for your efforts with earlier varieties.
Growth Habitat: Most pepper plants have a very similar growth habitat, though slight differences between varieties or in growing conditions can have an impact in how tall or compact a plant will be and varieties that fall into either extreme are usually designated as such in the variety description. Pepper plants can easily be grown in containers as well as in-ground. Most varieties benefit from some type of plant support as they grow and set fruit.
Seed Saving: If you plan to save seed, make sure you are selecting open pollinated varieties instead of hybrids. Peppers are self-pollinating, so a significant isolation distance is not usually necessary between varieties, but there is always a small chance for cross-pollination in the garden, particularly if there is a lot of pollinator activity.
Local Trials: Sometimes the only way to get a good sense of a variety is to just simply grow it and see. Talk to other gardeners, read reviews, ask questions at farmer’s markets and garden centers, and document your own hits and misses for the benefit of others.
pictured above: Cayenne Long Thin
What are your favorite pepper varieties for eating, cooking, and preserving? Please share in the comments below!