Jalapenos: Zip up the zing

I was talking with a friend last week and he was complaining about the lack of heat in some jalapeno peppers he had recently bought. Earlier this spring, I had promised him some of mine when they were ready, so this statement was a little disconcerting to me. I did not want him thinking my jalapenos were duds. As a gardener, I have certain level of pride, a standard to live up to.

I am not big on super hot, spicy food, so I had not paid much attention to how hot my peppers were, but I would now. Some time ago, I had heard too much water would make a hot pepper mild. Was this just an old garden myth or fact, I would have to do some digging and not in the garden.

It turns out it was not a myth. The ingredient in hot peppers which gives them heat is called capsaicin and is referred to as the pepper's natural defense. When jalapeno plants are stressed, as when they are lacking water, the capsaicin increases, resulting in hotter peppers.

To tell if your peppers are getting hot, or when picking them in the store, look for stress lines. As they age, some peppers develop white lines, almost like stretch marks running in the direction of the length of the pepper. The stretch or stress marks indicate the amount of stress the pepper plant has lived through.

A pepper plant that is stressed by having the soil get dry between watering times will have an impact on the the hotness of the pepper.

Also, the older the pepper and the more stress the plant has been under, the more white lines you'll see and the hotter the pepper will be.

The smoother the pepper, the younger, the less stressed and the milder it is.

Left on the plant, green jalapenos will eventually turn red. So red jalapenos are older than green jalapenos. The red ones can be pretty hot, especially if they have a lot of "stress marks" but they are also sweeter than the green ones.

Another thing that can help zip up the zing of your jalapenos is sun. The more sun, hot sun, the better your chance of producing a hotter pepper. Peppers need full sun, a minimum of six hours. More is better!

Use a fertilizer high in potassium and phosphorus. These two nutrients help the plants produce as many peppers as possible. Go to a garden center and find a fertilizer high in potassium and phosphorus. Apply it as the product directs you to.

Refrain from using a fertilizer high in nitrogen since nitrogen encourages foliage growth, which deters the energy from fruit production.

Chose a variety that is known for its fire power and isolate the plants from sweet or milder varieties of peppers. Cross pollination can affect the heat of the fruit.

Of course, these are just a guidelines. There is still plenty of variation among individual peppers.

And keep in mind, capsaicin, the chemical that gives chilies their heat, is concentrated in and around the seeds and in the ribs. The flesh of the chili that is closer to the seeds will be hotter than the flesh near the tip.

A hot food "expert" told me if you are going to take the seeds out of a jalapeno to roll it between your hands with a little pressure before you cut it open. This will release some of the heat into the flesh before you take the seeds and ribs out, but not have the full-blown fire of the seeds.

This should help my "Pepper Growing Pride." Although now that I have this water thing figured out, it has rained for two days. Seems mother nature is determined to keep me humble in the "hot pepper" department.

Happy gardening!

Peter Sutter is a life long gardening enthusiast and a participant in the MU Extension's Callaway County Master Gardener Program. Gardening questions can be sent to [email protected].