Hot peppers are members of the Capsicum genus of the nightshade family Solanaceae (Rhodes 2009). Hot peppers are native to Central and South America where they have been part of the human diet since about 7500 BCE (Bosland 1996). 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 the spice, 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 (Wright 2010). 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.
A hybrid hot pepper is bred from two genetically different purebred varieties to produce fruit with desirable characteristics (Culbert 2011). While hybrids are known for their vigor and characteristics, such as their adaptability to environmental stress, disease resistance, and growth uniformity from plant to plant, heirloom hot peppers were selected for their superior flavor and eating quality. A hot pepper is considered an heirloom when the variety has been in use for 50 to 100 years, and it is open pollinated and "true to type," which means seeds will produce offspring that are identical to the parent plant (Wright 2013). Unlike hybrid plants that are not consistent from generation to generation, heirloom seeds can be saved and regrown the following year.
Heirloom hot peppers are closely related to other vegetables in the family Solanacea, such as potatoes, tomatoes, tobacco, and eggplants. Many diseases for these vegetables can affect heirloom hot peppers, making them susceptible to these diseases. Bacterial leaf spot caused by Xanthomonas campestris pv. vesicatoria is the most common, and it is characterized by small, water-soaked or greasy spots on leaves and small, light green, and raised spots on fruit that enlarge and turn scabby (Pernezny and Kuchark 2011). Viruses, such as pepper mottle, potato virus Y, tobacco etch, and tobacco mosaic virus, are common problems. These diseases create stunted plants, fruit and leaf malformation, mottling, and leaf mosaics, but identifying these viruses in the field is difficult and must be done in a laboratory (Mossler, Aerts, and Nesheim 2012). To prevent the spread of diseases use clean transplants, control weeds and insects, such as white flies and aphids, avoid overhead irrigation, and reduce handling of the plants while they are wet.
Heirloom Hot Pepper Varieties—Here is a guide of the popular pepper varieties used in Florida (Table 1). The popularity was assessed from a survey among seed suppliers, which include Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Burpee, High Mowing Seeds, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Tomato Grower Supply Company, Seeds of Change, Territorial Seed Company, and My Patriot Supply. When organic seeds were available, the USDA logo was inserted. The relative Scoville rating, which measures a pepper's pungency, was also included when it was available.
Bosland, P.W. 1996. Capsicums: Innovative Uses of an Ancient Crop. p. 479-487. In: J. Janick (ed.), Progress in New Crops. ASHS Press. Arlington, VA. http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/proceedings1996/V3-479.html
Culburt, D. 2011. Heirlooms – and Other Seedy Words. Gainesville: University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. http://okeechobee.ifas.ufl.edu/News%20columns/Heirloom.Vegetables.htm
Mossler, M., M. J. Aerts, and O.N. Nesheim. 2012. Florida Crop/Pest Management Profiles: Bell peppers. Gainesville: University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pi040
Pernezny, K. and T. Kucharek. 2011. Some Common Diseases of Pepper in Florida. Gainesville: University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/vh054
Rhodes, D. 2009. Vegetable Crops. Purdue Univ., Dept. of Hort. Landscape Architecure. Hort 401. http://www.hort.purdue.edu/rhodcv/hort410/pepper/pe00001.htm
Wright, S. 2010. Hot Peppers and Specialty Sweet Peppers. Cooperative Extension Service. Univ. KY, College Agri. http://www.uky.edu/Ag/NewCrops/introsheets/hotpeppers.pdf
Wright, S. 2013. Heirloom Vegetables. Cooperative Extension Service. Univ. KY, College Agri. http://www.uky.edu/Ag/NewCrops/introsheets/heirloom.pdf