Peter Piper picked a peck of…what was that pepper again? Peppers are one of the oldest types of cultivated vegetable, and also one of the most diverse. It’s estimated that there are over 50,000 cultivars of peppers grown worldwide today. And though these varieties can be divided into subsets of families with fancy scientific names, here are the descriptive categories you are most likely to run into:
By far the most familiar and versatile of the sweet peppers are the bell pepper varieties. They’re popular for stuffing and baking whole, or getting sliced and diced into everything from soups, salads and sandwiches to pizzas, pasta, and ratatouille.
The hot pepper category encompasses everything from the mildly spicy Cubanelles and Anaheims to the middle-of-the-road jalapenos, serranos and cayennes to the crazy-hot habaneros and Bhut Jolokias. Most hot peppers native to the Americas are also known as chili or chile peppers.
These are any long edible peppers shaped like miniature bananas. Some are yellow, living fully up to the name, but the fruits are also found in reds, greens, and oranges. Some, like the variety “sweet banana”, are sweet, and others, like the “Hungarian wax”, are spicier.
Ornamental peppers are generally compact, attractive plants grown for their looks rather than taste. They generally sport interestingly-shaped fruits often in a variety of colors, sometimes even on the same plant. And even though these peppers are planted for their visual interest, most are edible, and many are quite spicy.
How hot is a hot pepper?
When trying to decide between all these options, one great tool is the Scoville rating scale. The scale was created by a pharmacologist named Wilbur Scoville in 1912 and it uses specially trained taste-testers and chemistry to rate the spiciness of different chili types on a scale of 0 to 3.2 million “Scoville heat units” (abbreviated “SHU”). A sweet pepper has a rating of 0 SHU and the current hottest peppers in the world, Peppers ‘Carolina Reaper’ and ‘X’, are in the range of 2-3.2 million SHU.
Click here for a printable PDF version of the Scoville Heat Index chart you can take along when you go pepper shopping.
Peppers are easy to grow and delicious in all sorts of dishes, from spicy Tex-Mex to mild sausage and pepper casserole. You can try growing them from seed or find many of the most popular varieties as started plants at your local garden center. With 50,000 types to choose from, you’re sure to find one that fits your tastes and needs.