Tag Archives: heirlooms

A Brief History of Peppers

Peppers are an excellent crop for gardens of the Southeast. They’re beautiful and incredibly productive. Peppers are available in various shapes, colors, and flavors, so every gardener can find a variety to fit their tastes.

We carry three species of peppers at Southern Exposure: Capsicum annuum, Capsicum chinense, and Capsicum baccatum. Most peppers easily found in the U.S., and almost all sweet peppers, fall under the species Capsicum annuum.

Worldwide, there are 26 known wild pepper species and five domesticated species. The domesticated species include the three we carry as well as Capsicum frutescens and Capsicum pubescens. 

Wild Peppers

Peppers originated in parts of South, Central, and southern North America. Scientists believe that C. annuum evolved in Mexico. C. frutescens probably evolved in the Amazon basin. Capsicum chinense is a misnomer; this species also originated in the Americas and is thought to have evolved from Capsicum frutescens. Capsicum pubescens is native to Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Capsicum baccatum is also believed to have originated in Peru and Bolivia, the Andean region of South America.

The first wild peppers probably produced small, red, pea-sized fruits, which attracted frugivorous birds. Unlike humans, birds don’t have the receptors in their mouths for capsaicin, the chemical that gives peppers their heat. Bird digestive systems also leave pepper seeds intact, making them ideal distributors for wild peppers. 

Domestication

Pre-ceramic remains of C. annuum have been found in east-central Mexico in the Valley of Tehuacán. These remains date to 9000–7000 B.P. (before present) and are “the oldest macrobotanical evidence for pre-ceramic chili pepper in the New World.” Archeologists found them in association with other domesticated crops such as maize and squash, leading them to believe these may have been cultivated.

C. frutescens probably evolved and was domesticated in the Amazon Basin. Today it’s cultivated and grows wild in many regions across South and Central America. It’s also grown in India and Ethiopia and has become an essential part of Ethiopian cuisine. 

The exact origin of C. chinense is still unknown. It’s believed to have evolved from Capsicum frutescens and was cultivated in the Amazon Basin in what’s now Southern Brazil and Bolivia. Later it was brought to the Caribbean and Cuba, where it was given the name Habanero. 

Domestication of C. pubescens dates back to pre-Incan times. It was grown by ancient Peruvians of the Paracas, Nazca, Moche, and Chimu cultures. Records of this species can be seen in the textiles, ceramics, and domestic remains of these societies.

Using DNA analysis in combination with archeological evidence, scientists have determined that C. baccatum was most likely domesticated in the lowlands of Bolivia and inter-Andean valleys of Peru at least 4000 B.P. These peppers were most likely domesticated by pre-Incan peoples, including the Arawak and Guarani. 

Sweet Pickle (Christmas Tree) Pepper

Pepper Varieties

As with many crops, commercialized farming shifted away from heirloom and open-pollinated peppers starting at the beginning of the 20th century. Farmers began growing more and more hybrids that produced uniform, sturdy crops that were ideal for shipping. Thankfully, many heirloom and open-pollinated peppers are available for backyard gardeners and small farmers, including those listed below and more.

***If the name is listed in green, it’s a variety we carry. Others are listed for educational purposes, but you may be able to locate seeds from another source.***

Capsicum annum

This species is the most commonly found in the United States and is the most extensively cultivated. It includes a wide variety of pepper shapes and flavors. Almost all sweet pepper varieties are cultivars of C. annuum. They generally have thicker walls than C. chinense or C. baccatum making them ideal for sauces.

Capsicum chinense

These peppers are generally thin-walled and commonly known as “habanero-type” peppers. Their heat is relatively dispersed throughout all parts of the pepper, and they have a fruity flavor. Most of the world’s hottest peppers, including the “Carolina Reaper,” come from this species though not all varieties are that intense.

Capsicum baccatum

C. baccatum peppers are typically the best for drying. They have a spicy, fruity flavor and are generally disease-resistant. They’re an important ingredient in Bolivian and Peruvian cuisine and are sometimes exported as ornamental plants.

Capsicum frutescens

Often used as ornamental peppers, C. frutescens typically bear colorful, lance-shaped upright fruits. They are small and very pungent. They’re often cultivated and used in India and Ethiopia. 

  • Tabasco Pepper
  • Xiaomila Pepper
  • Malagueta Pepper
  • Piri Piri (African Devil Pepper)
  • Siling Labuyo

Capsicum pubescens

This species is probably the most unique. It typically produces meaty, juicy, apple-shaped fruit with black seeds. The plants also have notably hairy leaves and withstand cooler temperatures than other pepper species. They don’t dry well and are typically eaten fresh or made into a paste.

  • Rocoto Longo
  • Canário
  • Mexican Manzanos
  • Peruvian Rocotos
  • Bolivian Locotos
  • Perón

Harvesting, Drying, & Eating Popcorn

Cherokee Long Ear Small

Though the grocery store may only carry yellow or white popcorn home gardeners know that popcorn comes in variety of colors. You may also know that popcorn can be used in a variety of ways. In fact, popcorn was probably first ground like other flour corns to make bread. Native Americans had domesticated popcorn by 5000 B.C.E. but as far as currently available archeological evidence suggests, popping popcorn as we do today didn’t become popular until the 1820s.

Check out the PBS article, History of Popcorn, for more interesting information.

Harvesting

Popcorn should be left to dry in the field as long as possible. When you harvest, the husks should be completely dry and the kernels hard. You should then dry your corn as soon as possible.

Drying

Once you’ve harvested your popcorn, it should be hung somewhere cool and dry. An easy way to do this is to pull the husks back, remove the strings, and hang them on a line with clothespins either indoors or under cover. Some folks also have luck completely removing the husks and hanging mesh bags of ears. Especially if you live in a humid climate, be sure to move the bags around every few days and check for signs of mold or mildew where the ears of corn touch eachother.

Popcorn needs to dry until it reaches an ideal moisture content of between 13 and 14%. This level of moisture is key to getting good “pops.” While your popcorn is hanging to dry test a few kernels once or twice a week. When they pop well you can move your popcorn to storage.

If you just can’t wait to eat a bit you can speed up the process with a dehydrator. Shell a few ears and lay the kernels on a dehydrator tray. Dehydrate between 120-130°F, checking few hours until it’s popping well.

Storing

To save space, shell your popcorn and place it in airtight containers. It will keep for several years.

If stored popcorn won’t pop it may have become too dry. Don’t worry though, you can add moisture to make it pop again. Fill a quart jar with popcorn and 1 tablespoon of water. Shake occasionally until all the water is absorbed. Check to see if it will pop every 3 to 4 days and keep adding water 1 tablespoon at a time until it pops well.

Popping

Making popcorn on a stovetop is surprisingly easy. Begin by heating a large, thick-bottomed saucepan or dutch oven with lid with about 3 Tbs of olive oil in it over medium heat. Once hot, the oil should cover the bottom of the pan. Then add 3 kernels to the pan and place the lid on.

When all the kernels have popped, add 1/3 cup of kernels and place the lid back on. Ocassionally slide or shake the pan back and forth redistributing the popcorn. When the popping slows to a few seconds between pops remove your pan from the heat and enjoy!

Other Uses

Popcorn also makes wonderful cornmeal or grits. Check out our article about proccessing flour corn for tips. You can also make popcorn pie!

Additionally popcorn can be eaten like sweet corn in what’s called the “milk stage.” When the husks are still green but the silks have begun to brown check an ear or two to see how the kernels look. For colored popcorns it’s ready just before it takes on darker colors. You can also check by tasting it or by piercing a kernel with a fingernail. If white liquid comes out it’s ready for fresh eating.

The Case for Storage Crops

Jacob’s Cattle (Trout) Bush Dry Bean

You don’t need to be a “prepper” to grow storage crops. In fact, there are many reasons anyone with room should add a few storage crops to their garden. Storage crops can help you cut down on your grocery bill, eat a more local diet (which is better for the environment), and even eat a little healthier too. They’re also a great way to connect with history. Not long ago all of our ancestors relied on storage crops to help them make it through the year. Today we may not depend on them but growing some can be a worthwhile pursuit.

Dry Beans

They’re wonderfully easy to grow and a great source of protein. Beans are also a nitrogen-fixing legume perfect for growing after or in combination with heavy-feeders like corn. Dry bean varieties are either pole or bush type so consider your space before choosing a variety.

Dry beans should be allowed to fully mature and if possible dry before harvest. If frost or wet weather threatens you can pull the entire plant and hang them under cover to dry. An easy way to thresh dry beans is to take the beans still in pods and pour them into an old pillowcase. Then you can beat the pillowcase against a hard surface to break up the pods. You can then winnow the pods out.

Potatoes

While we often associate potatoes with the Irish they’re actually indigenous to the Andes in what’s now southern Peru and northwestern Bolivia. They’ve been cultivated for over 10,000 years!

Potatoes need to be cured before storage. Once harvested potatoes should be cured in a single layer somewhere dark and dry. Avoid washing them. You can gently brush off any dirt as they dry. After 7-10 days they can be placed in cardboard boxes and stored somewhere cool and dry. Around 55°F is ideal.

Sweet Potatoes

Don’t think sweet potatoes are only for Thanksgiving! This super versatile vegetable is nutritious and easy to grow at home. Unlike store bought sweet potatoes, varieties available for home cultivation range from starchy to sweet with a variety of colors including purple and white!

If cured and stored properly, sweet potatoes will keep for months with little effort. Check out the link above for everything you need to know about growing, harvesting, and storing sweet potatoes.

Winter Squash & Pumpkins

These awesome plants were developed by Native Americans and were an important dietary staple. Most have a sprawling nature so they require quite a bit of garden space but they can be grown beneath taller crops like in the “three sisters” method. Once established their vines will shade the soil reducing the need for watering and weeding.

Like sweet potatoes, winter squash must be harvested, cured, and stored properly to maximize their storage potential. However, this process is fairly straightforward and simple and squash can keep through the winter.

Floriani Red Flint Corn

Flour Corn

Also called maize, corn is still a staple crop in much of the world. Originally cultivated by Native Americans, flour corn is nothing like the sweet corn most of us are accustomed to eating at summer cookouts today.

Check out the link about to learn how to process your own flour corn for making food like grits, tortillas, and cornbread.

Root Vegetables

There are a variety of root vegetables that make excellent winter storage crops. Depending on your family’s preferences consider growing extra carrots, beets, turnips, or rutabagas.

If you live in a fairly mild climate one of the best ways to store root vegetables is right in the ground. Simply mound some mulch over them like hay or stray and harvest them as needed. Alternatively, you can harvest them, remove the tops and store them in layers in boxes of damp sand or shredded newspaper. Make sure they’re not touching and check them every week or so for spoilage.

Cabbage

When many people picture storing cabbage they often think of sauerkraut. While this is a fine and delicious way to preserve a cabbage harvest, you can also keep cabbage fresh. If you have a root cellar or cool damp space you can hang heads of cabbage upside down by their roots. Cabbage stored this way can keep for 3-4 months.

Garlic

While garlic may not be a staple crop it does provide a lot of flavor for little effort. Many believe that garlic may also have health benefits and historically has been used to treat a variety of ailments.

Garlic is started in the fall from cloves. There are two types hardneck and softneck garlic. Hardneck produces scapes and handles cold temperatures well but softneck typically stores longer, though both will store for several months. Both types should be cured before storage.

Onions

At SESE we carry both bulb and perennial onions which are ideal for winter storage. Like most other storage vegetables, onions must be cured. Then they can be stored at room temperature and bring flavor to meals for months to come. They’re also a great crop for small gardens because they take up little space and are ideal for companion planting with many other vegetables.

Storage Tomatoes

While you can preserve any variety of tomatoes some varieties can be stored fresh! They’re harvested green in the fall and brought inside to ripen. All you need is a place to lay out your tomatoes with air space in between each one at room temperature. They can provide fresh tomatoes up to three months after harvest. Check out the link above to learn about three storage tomato varieties.

All of these wonderful vegetables can be stored for winter use without any electricity or complicated preservation techniques required. Having these on hand can help you make and eat healthier meals from home which is better for your budget and the planet.