AHI DULCE: Perennial Peppers Capsicum chinense, C. baccatum, C. pubescens
To most gardeners in America, peppers are a short lived, tender, annual vegetable crop. Typical bell peppers, jalapenos, and pablanos, belong to the species Capsicum annuum. This common species is also the most diverse in the genus, with as many as a thousand varieties. Most varieties of Capsicum annuum are annuals or biennials and will live from less than one year to two years of age. In many tropical regions of the world, especially South America and the Caribbean, perennial pepper species are widespread and popular in traditional and fusion cuisine. In the sub-tropical food forest perennial peppers are a great partial shade/understory plant and often require very little care, besides harvest and annual pruning. These perennial plants can live from two to seven years in a balanced garden system. The range of piquancy (spice) in perennial peppers species goes from very mild to blazing hot. Different varieties of the same species can have a considerable variance in heat levels as well. The very popular species Capsicum chinense, contains the Habanero, which was once known as the world’s hottest pepper. Capsicum chinense also contains the low heat, mildly spiced, yet fruity, and extremely flavorful Cachucha peppers, which like the Habanero, hail from the island nation of Cuba. Seeds are best started in the early spring, as the plants generally take up to 100 days to yield fruit. In cold climates (zone 8 and below) the plants should be kept in containers to allow for wintertime protection. In South Florida and throughout the tropics, seeds can be started almost anytime of the year, and transplanted out when seedlings are six to 12 inches tall. Perennial peppers are used just like a typical chile pepper, and can be added to soups, curries, marinades, sauces, salsas, and infused in oil or vinegar. Next time when planting peppers give these unusual antiques a try. Seeds are sometimes hard to find, but ripe fruits of the peppers can be purchased in Caribbean markets, and online at various fresh food distributors. These peppers are not only delicious, they are also versatile and easy to grow.