A Patch of Peppers
August 10, 208
This morning I watched a California 'wild' honey bee fly from Brazil to Peru by way of Japan. I rushed to get my camera to record his transcontinental flight but when I returned to the garden he was over in Australia pollinating a winter squash. It's been that way all summer here in the Valley of the Moon. Moving 18 inches from one pepper plant to another crosses countries, continents, plant species and even centuries of plant development. If you want armchair travel seasoned with education and beauty while waiting for delicious eating nothing can beat a patch of peppers.
My main pepper planting is modest in size. It measures 35' X 10' and holds about 75 plants. There are 5 different species (C. annuum, frutescens, chinense, baccatum, pubescens), 32 varieties (etc etc etc) and more to see and think about than I've had time to do either. The education begins with the seeds. Nearly all pepper seeds look alike: small flat, round, tan-colored seeds that look crimped at the edges. But one pepper variety, Rocoto, (C pubescens) has jet black seeds. Rocoto is a very hot but very cool looking pepper!
Once established a pepper patch puts on a remarkable show of diversity in branching, leaf types and flower arrangements that long precede the abundance of different fruit. A brief study of just a few plants opens up a treasure chest of natural nuance and ingenuity. For example, the flower of our common sweet peppers or hot chili peppers(C annuum) is a small, neat affair. They seem to have an Amish-like modesty with white, straight petals with typically one flower per branch point (see photo). The flowers of the C. baccatum & pubescens, however, have a painterly splash of color on each petal making it as beautiful as any in the garden (see photos).
Botany students keen on classification will find a pepper patch to be a challenge. You can yell out "Capsicum chinense!" when you spot the unique crinkled leaves of the rare Brazilian "Dog Tooth" pepper but the multiple Peruvian "Aji" types will have you searching for small clues. It's a comfort to find that even texts disagree on the classification of many pepper varieties. The pepper gene bank in Brazil seems to have thrown up its hands when attempting to classify its 200+ accessions of unique Brazilian peppers. They appear to abandon the Linnaean system in their initial classification of the collection in preference for the common farmer/consumer technique of sweet vs. hot; fresh vs. dry; size; shape and resemblance. The latter category takes on an unusual and vivid meaning in the "Monkey Penis" types. I don't know where Carl Linnaeus working in 1729 would have put such a pepper but I have no doubt but that he would have enjoyed it.
As fall approaches the pepper field studies are giving way to a more direct benefit: eating. The Spanish Padron peppers are hitting their stride and the Peruvian Aji Crystal pods are at their peak of citrus-y heat. In about a week I'll be frying the first delicate, sweet Italian Friarello peppers and the Japanese Shishito peppers are close behind. The peppers used for drying such as the famous New Mexican Chimayo or the glorious Mexican peppers from Oaxaca and Etla will need another month to ripen but the company of so many fresh peppers makes the wait painless.
I recommend a pepper patch to anyone with curiosity and an eye for beauty multiplied by subtle diversity. A yen for fine eating is only a bonus.
My 2008 Pepper Patch was organically grown and attended to with an unusual amount of hand work.
Vegetables of Interest, 2008