Q: Are there any heirloom hot peppers?
A: Yes, we have many heirloom hot peppers which can be grown in several parts of Florida. Remember, the term “heirloom” vegetables means you can use the seeds from the fruit and produce future plants year after year. Hot peppers are native to Central and South America where they have been part of the human diet for thousands of years. Hot peppers were named by Christopher Columbus who mistakenly thought they were related to Piper nigrum or black pepper because they had a similar pungency. Columbus returned to Spain with some of the peppers, and its popularity rapidly spread throughout Europe, India, China, Korea, Thailand and Japan.
Hot peppers are known for their pungent flavor. The pungency is caused by the compound capsaicin, which is measured in Scoville heat units. A pepper with more capsaicin will have a higher Scoville heat unit. Bell peppers have a Scoville unit of zero, while the hottest peppers have a Scoville unit greater than 1,000,000. The pungency level is genetic, but it can be influenced by environmental stress. A hot pepper from the same variety grown in hot, dry conditions would have higher capsaicin and a more pungent flavor than a hot pepper grown in cooler, humid conditions.
Heirloom hot peppers are closely related to other vegetables in the family Solanacea, such as potatoes, tomatoes, tobacco, and eggplants. This means the same diseases commonly found on Solanacea plants will attack peppers. A few of those diseases are bacterial leaf spot which shows up as small, water-soaked or greasy spots on leaves. These spots are often accompanied by small, light green, raised spots on fruit which ultimately become enlarged and turn scabby. Viruses can also be found on peppers such as pepper mottle, potato virus Y, tobacco etch, and tobacco mosaic virus. These diseases create stunted plants, fruit and leaf malformation, mottling, and leaf mosaics, but it is really tough to identify these viruses in the field. Most often, specimens need to be sent to the University of Florida pathology lab for absolute identification. Controlling weeds and insects is a critical strategy for managing the spread of the diseases. Remember to avoid overhead irrigation, and reduce handling, harvesting or pruning plants while the plants are wet. The attached publication from the University of Florida provides a long list of heirloom peppers to try. Plant peppers in full sun and only in the warm months of the year. http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/hs1244