Peppers are one of the most popular crops to grow in Kansas home gardens. They grow just as well in containers as they do in the ground. Rachel and I have found that a one-half whiskey barrel will hold two plants that provide more peppers than we could ever eat. 

Peppers are commonly sorted into three groupings: hot peppers, sweet peppers and bell peppers. Check out the produce aisle in any grocery store and you’ll be amazed at the available varieties. Chili peppers have been cultivated in Mexico for more than 6,000 years. They’re prized for the spiciness that they add to foods throughout the world. Capsaicin is the substance responsible for giving chili peppers their heat. The intensity of that heat is measured in Scoville heat units (SHU), the higher the number, the greater the heat. Bell peppers have a SHU rating of zero. Scotch Bonnets can be as high as 350,000 SHU. That’s hot enough to burn your eyes and skin. Handle with care.

Peppers can be prepared either fresh or dried. Hungarian paprika is a ground mild pepper powder. Curry dishes may contain either fresh or dried chilies. The Chinese cuisine known as Sichuan is renowned for its bold, spicy flavors owed to chili peppers. Chili peppers are also used to make hot sauce, which is indispensable to southern cuisine. Sriacha sauce from Thailand has also become an increasingly popular condiment. 

Rachel and I both love pepper flavors, but neither one of us are crazy about the heat. To turn it down a little, be sure to scrape out the seeds and veins. Soaking overnight in rum or vodka will also make them more tolerable. Charring over an open flame makes them smoky and mellow. If you happen to want to turn up the heat, just withhold water for a few days before picking. The food psychologist Paul Rozin refers to the thrill that people get from eating extremely spicy foods as “benign masochism.” I’ll pass.

Sweet peppers can be harvested at any stage. Smaller ones tend to be more crunchy. As they mature, the sweetness intensifies. All bell peppers start off green and change color as they ripen. If left to grow, they will turn from yellow to orange and then red when fully ripened. Red bell peppers are the sweetest. Green bell peppers have a spicy, aromatic flavor that’s perfect for stuffing or stir-fries. Pepper plants thrive when temperatures range from 70 to 80 degrees. When temperatures exceed 90 degrees, pepper production shuts down and flowers won’t set. Have patience. They’ll be fine once the temperature cools off.

Fish peppers are an heirloom variety that was popularized by African Americans cooks during the mid-19th century. They come from the Chesapeake Bay area and as far north as Philadelphia. They were the secret ingredient in cream sauces served in oyster and crab houses. Fish peppers could be ground into a fine powder that was unnoticeable in the white sauces. They add a slight kick that goes particularly well with shellfish. These recipes never ended up in cookbooks because they were passed by word of mouth. 

Horace Pippin was a noted African American folk painter from West Chester, Pennsylvania. His right arm was wounded in combat during WW I. He treated the pain with bee stings. In order to obtain honey bees, he would trade heirloom garden seeds. Fish peppers would be lost if not for his bartering. 

Fish peppers are also noteworthy for their ornamental value. Their unusual look grabs your attention. They have variegated green and white leaves that darken as they mature.  The chilies are pale yellow with green stripes that turn to orange and green, and finally red. The peppers have a medium heat, somewhat like a serrano. They’re available online from Baker Creek or Burpee Seeds. Peppers are members of the nightshade family solanaceae, cousins to eggplants, potatoes and tomatoes. They’re all extremely easy to grow.

Rachel and Ivan Minnis are avid gardeners. They live in Leavenworth. For more information, visit The Minnis Rose Garden on Facebook. Contact them at rnlyes@hotmail.com