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When it comes to green chiles, can you take the heat?

Forgive me if I’ve said this before, but my dad likes to eat green chile that burns your face off. Or maybe that’s just how I like to remember the story. Or maybe he still like his chile hot, his wife Susan does not, so he made a concession (in the right direction). Regardless, I like to think that my old man can eat hotter chile than anyone else’s dad and that’s the way it is.

I love growing peppers here in Southwest Colorado – there is probably no other crop that brings me as much joy or as little stress. Now, for some reason, our gardens can always produce a ton of kale. But, with no disrespect to kale, it does not bring me anywhere near the joy as a pepper does. But there are some gardening expectations that tend to occur in our yard: Shishito peppers go in containers, and we grow about 10 to12 plants every year; jalapeños are in-ground, and almost all are pickled (decreases the heat, I think); corno di toro peppers are the new favorite, as they are an Italian sweet pepper that consistently turn a bright red well before the first frost; and if there is enough space, a rotation of other sweet peppers get their go (lunchbox, Padron, pimento). You may have noticed that, other than jalapeños, I didn’t mention any of the hot peppers (habanero, Scotch bonnet, ghost).

I like heat, I don’t like pain. For me, those are painful. I sometimes wish I had my dad’s palate (or lack of taste buds), so those spicy Thai peppers wouldn’t make me lose my breath (and feeling in my lips), but they frequently do. Because of those parameters, I am more than content sticking with the green chile, which can still be quite hot!

Watching the green chile (Capsicum annuum) wars that have developed over the years between New Mexico and Colorado has been wildly entertaining. Who has the hottest chile? Whose roasts better? Do either of them cure a hangover?

If you like New Mexico chiles, frequently seen as Hatch chiles, then go for it. If you like your peppers hotter, thicker and maybe a bit smaller, then the Colorado chile may be your preference. Or, you may just have an allegiance to your home-state (we are a bit conflicted here so close to the New Mexico state line).

The town of Hatch, located in southern New Mexico, is probably the epicenter of production in the United States. Its primary variety is Big Jim, which was created in 1975 by New Mexico State University. Up here in Colorado, and more specifically the Pueblo area, the Mosco variety (aka Pueblo Green Chile) was commercially released in 2005. However, different strains of the plant had been grown in the area for at least 100 years before that. Every year, farmers would identify the best plants, save the seed and plant them next year. This practice created the distinct characteristics of the Pueblo chile: the Mira Sol (Spanish for “looking at the sun”). Most chiles hang down on the plant, but the Mira Sol? The tips point up.

What makes peppers unique and incredibly varied in their pungency or heat, is their capsaicinoids, a chemical compound that produces that burning sensation when it comes in contact with mammalian tissue (remember, these same compounds are used for pain relief, pest deterrents and even riot control). Capsaicin is found in yellow-colored sacs called vesicles, which are attached to the placenta of the fruit where the majority of the seeds are found. The vesicles can also be found in the thick veins that run the length of a fruit. So if you want to know how hot a pepper is, cut it open and inspect those parts – the yellower the veins, the hotter the fruit.

Darrin Parmenter is the director and horticulture agent of the La Plata County Extension Office. Reach him at darrin.parmenter@co.laplata.co.us or 382-6464.