Capsicum & chilli
7 Mar 2022
A family of five domesticated species, Capsicum annum, C. baccatum, C. chinense, C. frutescens, and C. pubescens
These are popular and flavourful foods with a huge range of uses when either ripe or immature. All chillies and some capsicums grow well in these parts, prolifically creating their fruit over a number of years, though capsicums do have a few challenges to keep in mind.
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Getting straight to the bad news, if you’re looking to grow the kinds of capsicums in the supermarket, the large boxy thick fleshed ones such as California Wonder, they are too difficult to grow here. Even our local professional growers with their superior skills do not bother despite the large demand for them.
A few choice quotes on these large blemish-free bell peppers from the Capsicum and chilli information kit put out by DPI Queensland:
“Organic production of capsicums is very difficult because of the large number of pests and diseases that affect capsicums and their susceptibility to these problems.” “There are few effective organic control measures for pests and diseases of capsicums.” “Warm weather production, particularly when frequent rain can be expected, will increase the risk of diseases.”
It’s not all bad though. Growing capsicums in this area is possible. It’s easiest if you stick to the smaller fruit varieties known as perennial capsicums. The naming can be a little confusing as all capsicums are perennial, and this term can refer to a type of small capsicum and a variety named Perennial Capsicum (C. annuum) (0 SHU – this is a heat rating). It’s a really good variety for here. It’s so much hardier, reliably long lived and resistant to capsicum wilt than most capsicums that it is used as grafting stock for less vigorous varieties. Usually this one is eaten green as it does not go red until the very end of the warm season.
Other good perennial capsicum types are:
Bishops Crown or Mad Hatter (C. baccatum) (0 – 30,000 SHU). It can have a few naming variations on the theme of head coverings due to its unique shape. This can have no heat, or only have a little heat in the centre with the wings being cool, or be very fiery. Check with the source of your plants to be sure of what you’re getting.
Padron Peppers (C. annuum) (500 – 2500 SHU) look just like Perennial Capsicum but can have no to low heat. Plus it has a reputation for some individual fruits being randomly very hot.
These perennial capsicum varieties have snack sized fruit about 6cm long and at least 2 – 3cm at their widest with thin flesh. They make up for their small size with astonishing abundance.
It is also possible to grow Bullhorn / Bulls Horn type capsicums here. These are the next level of difficulty up from the Perennials. Again, this is both a variety and seems to be a type. These types are full size capsicums about 15cm long. They are the size and shape of a cow’s horn.
Bullshorn (C. annuum) (0 SHU) the variety is known by many names including ‘Horn of the Bull’ and ‘Corne de Taureau’. It comes in the red or yellow varieties Corno di Toro Rosso or Corno Di Toro Giallo. This is recommended by many people as a good full size capsicum to grow here.
Marconi Red or Marconi Rosso (C. annuum) (0 SHU) is a bullhorn type capsicum that has been successfully grown here. It is known for a low germination rate of only 50% but has good resistance to several diseases that can attack capsicums.
Poblano (1000 – 2000 SHU), Sweet Banana (0 – 1000 SHU) and Hungarian Wax (1000 – 15,000 SHU) are all (C. annuum) and either a capsicum or chilli depending on your point of view. Again, they are bullhorn types. These can each have some heat to them or none at all. It depends on their growing conditions and the season. All are successfully grown locally.
Yellow to orange capsicums are generally known for being less prolific than green to red ones and may need higher temperatures. Smaller fruit are easier to grow. Look for disease resistant varieties!
In the case of chillies, it’s all good news. They grow really well here and you can experiment with planting any variety that takes your fancy and it should be successful.
An incomplete list of locally grown chillies from mild to scalding includes:
Anaheim (C. annuum or C. frutescens) (500 – 2500 SHU)
Bundagen Red (C. unknown) (approx 500 – 2500 SHU)
Fiesta (C. annuum) (approx 2,500 – 8,000 SHU)
Jalapeno (C. annuum) (2,500 – 8,000 SHU)
Serrano (C. annuum) (10,000 – 23,000 SHU)
Manzano (C. pubescens) (12,000 – 30,000 SHU)
Aji Limon (C. baccatum) (15,000 – 30,000 SHU)
Aji Amarillo (C. baccatum) (30,000 – 50,000 SHU)
Cayenne (C. annuum) (30,000-50,000 SHU)
Thai Birdseye (C. annuum or C. frutescens) (100,000 to 225,000 SHU)
Fatalii (C. chinense) (125,000 – 400,000 SHU)
Habanero (C. chinense) in the colours of Orange (200,000 – 350,000 SHU), Red (500,000 SHU) and Chocolate (425,000 – 577,000 SHU)
For heat reference, for a long time Habanero was the hottest chilli. With competitive breeding there are now chillies over 3,000,000 Scoville Heat Units (SHU), the standardised chilli heat measure. Older varieties tend to be hardier and longer lived than newly developed ones.
Varieties with low to moderate heat (capsaicin content) typically taste better. Note that the amount of sun the plant receives will affect the amount of heat, as well as the variety. So a super hot variety grown in full sun will produce hotter fruit than the same variety grown in part shade. This is good to bear in mind for those capsicums who can have some heat (Sweet Banana, I’m looking at you, ouch) as they can be unexpectedly fiery. The white pith surrounding the seeds is the hottest part.
Chilli is hottest when it has been cooked long enough to fully release the capsaicin. If in doubt, add chilli in at the end with only light cooking, or cook for hours to release then break down the capsaicin. For chilli first aid, use cold dairy foods. The casein they contain helps dissolve the capsaicin. To tame overly hot dishes, cream or yoghurt will work the same way to lower the heat.
Being the same plant family, the same growing advice applies to both capsicum and chilli. These are warm season plants who are damaged by not just frost but temperatures below 4°C. Growth is slowed below below 10°C. Large capsicums need 5 months of warmth for fruit making. Night temperatures of 15 – 17°C and day temperatures of 24 – 30°C are ideal. Chillies are more tolerant of high temperatures than capsicums.
Their soil temperature range for germination is 20 – 30°C, depending on the variety. This is quite warm. Wait until October or later unless aided by a heat mat or hot box. Sow them just 6mm deep in trays and transplant later. The seeds tend to take a while to come up. Anywhere from 5 – 21 days.
When the seedlings are between 4 – 8 weeks old they will be ready to transplant. They grow to be an upright bush 60 – 90cm tall. They need to be spaced at least 40 – 90cm apart. The soil type isn’t critical but this family grows best in medium textured good quality soil. This needs to be at least 30cm deep and it absolutely must be well drained. Add crusher dust or gravel to help with this if in doubt. Growing on a mound is recommended. Optimal pH is 5.0–6.0. Growing in a large pot at least 40cm diameter is possible too.
Locate them in a warm and sheltered spot. Avoid windy positions. Larger plants will benefit from staking. The capsicums really need support. These plants are quite brittle and have their limbs broken by strong wind, especially when laden with fruit. Put them in a sunny to semi-shaded spot. These plants love heat but not absolute full sun. The fruit can get sunburnt! Grow them under shade cloth (25–40% shade) or in part shade, maybe sheltered by a taller plant. Gently shaded plants create bigger and firmer fruit.
If you’re planning to keep them for a few years, don’t plant them where frost lands. In cooler climates these are an annual plant, but in this area they are a ‘short lived perennial’. Expect 3 – 7 years, with their best abundance for 2 – 3 years. They will need pruning to last and keep making plenty of fruits. Otherwise the branches get longer and thinner and the leaves and fruit get smaller and smaller. They become dormant in winter. This is the time to prune back to main branches, retaining only the larger buds that may be emerging. Apply minimal water over winter.
Over the growing season, don’t let their soil dry out. Don’t let their soil get waterlogged, it is the death of them. Frequent light watering is the way. Keep an eye on them to keep their soil moist in hot or windy weather. They have a restricted root system. Dry periods can make them drop flowers and young fruits, and cause blossom end rot on the fruit. They have next to no tolerance for salinity.
Unfortunately our hot while wet weather causes all sorts of disease pressure, in the form of a parade of root & stem rots, wilts, bacterial spot, nematodes and sometimes powdery mildew. Not replanting this family and other solanaceae with whom they share diseases in the same spot for 3 – 4 years is highly recommended. In dry warm weather the problems are aphids and spider mites.
Bowerbirds are attracted to swallowing ripe chillies whole. Birds are entirely immune to the fire of chilli! They also like to rip off the leaves. Ducks, rabbits and roos will eat the plants too.
Chilli and capsicum can be prone to fruit fly which introduce fungal diseases with their nibbling that will rot the individual fruit and spread to all of them. Remove damaged fruit and heat treat (burn or cook). Generally fruit fly become more of a problem the larger and riper the fruit. Collar rot can be an easy to avoid problem. Keep mulch from touching the main stem. Dig a little hole in the mulch for the plant to poke out of.
Like all fruiting plants they will make more fruit with treats of compost, and potash or fertiliser with high potassium (K) content, such as tomato fertiliser. Capsicums need calcium, magnesium & sulphur too. Start them off with an evenly balanced fertiliser mixed into their soil. Give them regular feeds, going easy on the nitrogen.
This family is self-pollinating so you only need one plant to grow fruit. Pollination is negatively affected by hot or cold weather (above 32°C or below 15°C), lack of water, where the humidity is too low and in high winds. They can be cross-pollinated by insects. This is only an issue if you have a few varieties, want to save seed and want the next generation to be predictable. Chilli pollen is dominant over capsicum – beware of the “ooops that’s a hot capsicum!” from your saved seed. Saving seed is easy. Keep the seeds from ripe fruit. In a pinch, seeds from green fruit will work but with much lower viability.
Once the seedlings are in the ground, it’s about 3 weeks to the first flower. Then another 4 – 9 weeks until the green fruit is ready to pick. Red fruit take an additional few weeks. Unintuitively, chillies (65 – 100 days) are slower to mature than capsicums (58 – 85 days). But chillies are generally able to be picked over a much longer season. Large capsicums may only create fruit for 6 weeks.
Pick at any stage of fruit ripeness. That’s their wonderful versatility! Cut, don’t pull the fruit off. It’s best to pick regularly rather than all at once to encourage the plant to keep fruiting for longer over the growing season. Especially for full sized capsicum, once the initial fruit has set, there won’t be many additional flowers that will set until the first fruits are picked. It’s best to pick these green. Green keep longer than red, which are sweeter but softer and more prone to rots and fruit fly. Also, the ripe colour seems to be a beacon for every known critter to come sample.
It’s good to know that the leaves are edible when cooked, but not raw. This definitely applies to C. annuum and C. frutescens. The jury is out on the other family members.
Big thanks to
Camilla from Autarky Farm, Kaycee from The Mandarin Bend, Matt & Nicole from Dolly’s Run, Nidya from The Patch Organics, Paul from Barefoot Fruit & Veg, Ian from The Gourmet Garden School, Jeff Alcott, Michele Morozumi, Nick from Bellingen Permaculture, Pete Bufo.
Additional thanks to John Vernon, Paul Mersh, Ruth Maitland
Supported by Bellingen Shire Council via the Bellingen Shire Disaster Recovery and Resilience Grant Program Funding
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