Peppers: From Mild to Wild

There's a hot pepper to suit every palate.

By Jessica Walliser


High Heat
'Indian Finger Hot' (India Jwala)
This 4-inch-long, very slender fruit with wrinkled skin is the most popular hot pepper in India, where it flavors an array of spicy dishes. It is a superhot (50,000 to 100,000 SHU), taste-bud-searing pepper that may floor even those who claim asbestos palates. As with all hot peppers, wise cooks wear rubber gloves when handling. 

'Thai Dragon' 
An heirloom variety, 'Thai Dragon' is a 3-inch-long pepper that's used in Asian cuisines. Exuding incredible heat (50,000 to 100,000 SHU), this pepper has excellent flavor if you can make it past the burn. One plant can produce as many as 200 peppers. Because the fruits ripen all at once, they are easily dried by pulling up the entire plant and hanging it upside down in a warm, dry place. The dried pods can then be harvested as needed.

"Chiltepins (also known as wild bird peppers) are the original wild chile pepper from which we've derived thousands of different chile varieties," says Danise Coon, program director of the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University. Chiltepins still grow wild in Arizona and Texas. These beadlike peppers have a lingering, super-intense heat (75,000 SHU).

Bird's Eye
This tiny, fiery pepper's Thai name is translated into English as "mouse dropping pepper," and it's among the hottest chiles (100,000 to 250,000 SHU). Found commonly in Thai and Cambodian cuisine, bird's eye chile peppers lend a powerful heat and a unique flavor. Anecdotally, one should be able to eat a Thai dish made with the same number of bird's eye peppers as one's age in years.

Scotch Bonnet
Scotch bonnets belong to the same species as habaneros (Capsicum chinense) and pack an equally mouth-scorching punch. "They don't have as long a growing season as habaneros, though, which need it to be hot all the time, so we have better luck with them during our frequent foggy nights," notes Lee James from California. Scotch bonnets are among the hottest peppers in the world, ranging between 100,000 and 300,000 SHU, and feature in Jamaican cooking and hot sauce.

'Bhut Jolokia'
The hottest pepper on the planet, 'Bhut Jolokia' measures a breath-robbing 1,001,304 SHU! Hailing from India, the "ghost chile" is tough to grow. "'Bhut Jolokia' peppers are stubborn and not for the novice grower," says Coon. "They are an interspecific hybrid—meaning they are a cross between two different species, which doesn't happen very often. That's what makes this one unique and probably contributes to its crazy hotness." Joe Arditi says, "This is the pepper than can send you to the emergency room."

Growing Information
All hot peppers need well-drained soil high in organic matter—and the warmer the soil, the better. Be sure the soil is at least 60°F (typically 7 to 10 days after the last-frost date in many areas of the country) before planting. Gardeners in the extreme South and parts of the Southwest can grow peppers year-round. Maintain a soil pH between 6.2 and 6.5 for maximum nutrient absorption. And give them room: Crowding decreases air circulation and increases the chance of disease. Mulch peppers with untreated grass clippings, straw, or finished compost to reduce weeding and keep the soil moist. Dryness can result in blossom-end rot; though chile peppers thrive in hot temperatures, consistent soil moisture is key. Fruit set is best when temperatures are between 70° and 85°F. If they top 80°F at night or 90°F during the day, the flowers may abort. Bud or flower drop can also be caused by stressors like drought or wind, but the problem usually goes away when the stressors are no longer present. 

More information & sources for pepper seeds:
Pepper Joe's Hot Peppers:
New Mexico State University's Chile Pepper Institute:
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, 417-924-8917,
W. Atlee Burpee & Co., 800-333-5808,
Reimer Seeds,