Chillies – So what’s with dfferent varieties of the same thing?

Chilli growers hear and talk a lot about different varieties. There are, after all, only 5 main species of chilli and many thousands of varieties within each. But that’s not what I am talking about today. Today I’m dealing with different types of the same chilli, and is it worth paying extra for new and exciting ones, or alternatively spending time seeking out the traditional old ones?

Firstly, I will say that, as a former commercial grower, I think a lot about things like increased yield per plant, uniformity of fruit, and ripening time. But shouldn’t we all? It isn’t necessarily a bad thing; even somebody who only has a single plant in their window would still like to see it produce better, bigger, hotter, quicker or tastier.

So when we go online at the start of the year to shop and dream, we are hit with lots of information. But is the sales patter all true? Phrases like ‘heavy cropper’, ‘bumper yield’, ‘continuous fruiting’ draw us into paying a bit more for a newly developed variety. Conversely, we are also told that looking backwards to old ‘heirloom’ varieties will give us a better flavour, the way things used to be. So is backwards the way forward?

To digress a little, let’s thing about the supermarket tomato. We all know that with tomatoes, what the shops feed us is bigger, quicker and juicier, thinner skinned, but rarely tastier than the ones we grow at home. Tomatoes are grown in such bulk that the growers’ choice of variety has become so influenced by commercial gain that flavour has definitely been sacrificed.

But are chillies affected in the same way? I’m not so sure. Even in areas where they are grown in bulk for a commercial market, increased productivity doesn’t usually lead to a reduction in flavour. Big peppers are different, and they suffer as tomatoes do, but not so much hot chillies.

All these thoughts were prompted by my comparison of two Jalapeno plants last year. They were grown side by side, one was bought as a seedling from a garden centre, grown for an anonymous market at minimum cost. The other grown by me from seed, the variety is ‘Chichimeca’. The results of a comparison are obvious. They both get the same amount of light and plant food, and enjoy the same temperatures, (which were great last summer).

Jalapeno Comparison
This picture has the first few chillies off of the two bushes, the basic Jalapenos are at the top and at the bottom is my favourite variety, Chichimeca.

From an industry insiders point of view, let me explain why the plants the garden centre supply are inferior. This is down to seed price, and the unfortunate fact that the grower of the seedling is so far removed from the eater of the chillies that they have no vested interest in growing something that will be big and bountiful, and this is such a tiny part of the garden centre’s income (compared to the cafe, imported tat, Christmas decorations, BBQs etc. etc.) that they aren’t too bothered either. Basic Jalapeno seed (probably Jalapeno M) will probably cost the wholesale plant grower about fifty quid for 20,000 seeds, so the seed part of their overhead is minimal. New varieties, like Chichimeca might cost them up to a few pence per seed, and suddenly that would have a knock on effect of the price of the seedling they sell to the garden centre, and therein lies the problem. Most garden centres are price-led, so the results aren’t as important.

You will see another illustration of the difference in seed price if you go to a specialist seed seller online. You might find somewhere that sells a wide range of chilli seeds, possibly a range so huge that making your choice becomes a daunting process. These guys will undoubtedly have a few really cheap ‘loss leaders’ they might even give these packets away for free if you buy enough of something else. But is it worth filling your greenhouse with these plants?

I think there are a few varieties where it is worth paying more for something better, greenhouse and window sill space is valuable and shouldn’t be wasted, and our time is valuable too, so we want to make our space as productive as possible, and preferably without too much effort.

So here are a few varieties where you can really benefit greatly by shopping around to find something a bit better.

Jalapeno – Steer clear of anything advertises simply as Jalapeno, Jalapeno M, or Early Jalapeno. These are older varieties, less prolific, and no uniformity of size, which means many will be undersized and lacking in heat where the seeds and placenta inside haven’t formed properly. Instead go for Chichimeca, Ixtapa, Summer Heat, Mucho Nacho, Tula or Mitla.

Orange Habanero – Instead of the standard variety, go for Chichen Itza; it is earlier to ripen, more prolific and bigger.

Serrano – The standard version is slow to grow, and with very few fruits per plant, instead go for ‘Senor Serrano’ They are Longer, more uniform, quicker and hugely prolific.

Ancho/Poblano – The standard plants can be quite rambling and often only the first few off the plant are full size. Instead try the ‘San Martin Hybrid’ it is bigger, more prolific and stronger more compact plants. Beware of hybrid Poblanos that claim huge oversized fruits. There are some crossed with sweet peppers to give a huge fruit, but they start to lose their distinctive flavour if they are bred too big.

And here are some where you can pick up a bargain that is still prolific and worthwhile.

• Hungarian Hot Wax
• Long Slim Cayenne
• Santa Fe

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