You are trying to grow hot peppers and you find they just don’t have enough heat. What are you doing wrong? What can you do different to grow really hot peppers?
People who love the heat from hot peppers are almost religious about making them hotter and hotter and this has resulted in a lot of online suggestions – many of them are just myths but some actually work. It’s time to separate fact from fiction and check the science to see what makes a pepper hot, and what can be done in the garden to make them hotter.
What Makes a Pepper Hot?
We are talking about the flavor here and not their sexy look.
The hotness in peppers is due to a group of chemicals called capsaicinoids and the most important of these is capsaicin, pronounced “cap-SAY-sin”. “The effect of the capsaicin has been described as delivering rapid bites to the back of the palate or a slow burn on the tongue and mid palate.” Capsaicin has no flavor or odor but acts directly on the pain receptors.
The largest amount of capsaicin is found in the white pith tissue that surrounds the seeds. The outer fleshy part of the fruit has significantly less and contrary to popular belief, there is almost none in the seeds.
The venom of some tarantula species and capsaicin activate the same chemical pathway of pain and both have been used in research to study pain.
If you want heat in your peppers, you need more capsaicin.
The Pepper Heat Scale
How hot is hot? Scientists have developed a heat scale called the Scoville scale which measure the amount of capsaicin in SHU (Scoville Heat Units).
Sweet pepper: <100 SHU
Jalapenos: 2,500-8,000 SHU
Tabasco: 30,000 – 60,000 SHU
Spicy habaneros: 100,000-580,000 SHU
Ghost: >1,000,000 SHU
Carolina Reaper: 1.5 – 2.2 million SHU
Can You Tell Heat by Looking at Peppers?
Someone on our Facebook group told us that a family elder could identify the hottest peppers just by looking at them; ” milder, sweeter papers grow downwards, while hot ones grow towards the sun.” Is this true or a myth?
Members of the group quickly pointed to exceptions to this rule, including, “most ghost and habanero point downwards like bell peppers.”
Common Suggestions for Growing Hot Peppers
The internet provides a variety of suggestions for growing hotter peppers, including the following list. Most claims use some form of stress on the plants.
- Choose a hot variety
- Location on the plant
- Reduce watering
- Keep nitrogen levels low
- Add sulfur to the planting hole
- Avoid cross pollination
- Let them age on the vine
- Feed less
- Epsom salt
Let’s have a look at each of these to see what science says.
Choose a Hot Variety
There are many types of peppers and some are certainly hotter than others. Select ones that meet your needs.
This link features the Worlds 10 hottest peppers. I don’t know how accurate the list is, but they certainly list some super hot ones.
Location of the Plant
Research has shown that fruit from the second node is hotter than fruit picked from other nodes.
One common tip is to reduce watering so that the plants are stressed. This is normally done just after fruit set and some suggest giving plants a drink only when the leaves start to droop.
UC Cooperative Extension has been testing ways to make jalapeños hotter. Research in hot climates like Mexico, Spain and Thailand have shown that water stress can increase hotness, but testing in California showed that water stress made them milder.
Watering peppers less may produce hotter peppers but these plants are sensitive to water levels. Water stress should not happen until after fruit set to ensure the flower is properly pollinated and fruit starts growing. Waiting until leaves droop is probably too extreme.
Keep Nitrogen Levels Low – Feed Less
Most of these claims are very vague and say things like, “fertilize less than normal.” How does that help? You might already be under fertilizing.
One site said,”Nitrogen makes plants grow big at the expense of the fruit” and then goes on to suggest, “use a slower and gentler type of fertilizer such as rotted manure or compost.” Side dressing with rotten manure is not going to keep nitrogen levels low!
Good thing we have science.
Habanero peppers grown at various nitrogen levels showed the highest capsaicin level at very low nitrogen and at high nitrogen. The low end represented a stress condition. The high nitrogen level produced hot peppers as well as increased flowering and fruiting. High nitrogen gives you both hotness and high yield. Varying potassium levels had no effect.
Similar tests on jalapeno peppers showed a steady increase in capsaicin as the nitrogen level increased. Fertilizer stress did not increase hotness. This study, as well as the one above were done using containers in a greenhouse.
There seem to be few field studies that would translate directly to a garden, but the science indicates stressing plants with low nitrogen is not the best way to grow hotter peppers. A home owner never knows how much nitrogen they have in soil, so it is difficult to manage nitrogen levels. All you can do is use a high nitrogen fertilizer and add extra to hot peppers.
Add Sulfur to the Planting Hole
It is believed that sulfur makes peppers hotter. The solution is simple. Put a strike anywhere match in the planting hole and the sulfur in the head of the match will make peppers hotter.
Sulfur does add an acrid flavor to things like onions, so maybe people associate this with being hot? Or they think a hot match will make peppers hot? Whatever the logic, it’s flawed.
The chemical formula for capsaicin is C18H27NO3. You will notice it does not contain sulfur, so it is unlikely that sulfur plays a significant role in the plants ability to make capsaicin. Besides the amount of sulfur in the head of a match is extremely small, it’s in the bottom of the planting hole, and plant roots will spread 4 feet in all directions. A match will have no effect.
All plants need some sulfur and if the soil is depleted, adding more will help the plant grow. Peppers like a slightly acidic soil with a pH of 6 to 6.8 and adding sulfur to alkaline soil can reduce the pH. However, there is no indication that sulfur makes peppers hotter.
Avoid Cross Pollination with Sweet Peppers
The logic goes like this. If you grow sweet and hot peppers together the sweet peppers can pollinate the hot peppers, resulting in fruit that is less hot. This seems very logical, but it’s wrong.
First of all, peppers are mostly self-pollinating which means a flower pollinates itself. It rarely uses pollen from another plant.
Secondly, even if the flower is cross pollinated, the fruit will have the characteristics of the mother plant, not those of the father plant. Any collected seed from a cross like this will have properties somewhere between the parents.
Cross pollination will never cause hot peppers to be less hot or more hot.
Should You Prune Pepper Seedlings?
It won’t affect the heat of the fruit, but pruning does affect when plants fruit and how they grow. Find out more in Should You Prune Pepper Seedlings?
Let Them Age on the Vine
The claim is that pepper fruit accumulates more capsaicin as it ages. The longer it is left on the vine, the hotter it gets. If you wait for those green jalapeños to turn red, you will have a much spicier pepper.
Testing of serrano peppers found no change in capsaicin during ripening of the green, yellow and red stages.
The two main capsaicinoids, including capsaicin, increased until day 40 (after fruit set) in cayenne peppers. This was followed by a sharp decrease and then a more gradual decrease until day 80.
Testing three types of hot peppers that are widely used in Mexico, found that capsaicin levels reached a peak at day 45-50, from fruit set, in habanero and de arbol and after 40 days in piquin. After that levels declined.
This research indicates that leaving peppers on the vine past 40-45 days (end of the growth period) will result in less heat. If you want super hot peppers, harvest them when the fruit stops growing in size.
I thought I had made it through the list without seeing Epsom salt, but no such luck. “Epsom salt delivers an immediate shot-in-the arm of magnesium to the plants and boosts growth.
There is no logic or scientific evidence that magnesium affects hotness.
What Makes Peppers Hotter?
The heat in peppers is dependent on many factors, including plant genetics, climate, geographic location and stage of ripeness. Warm weather regions generally produce hotter peppers than cooler areas. Warm nights, in particular, seem to be responsible for the higher capsaicin content.
Wild populations of peppers get hotter when attacked by insects and a fusarium fungus. They respond by producing more capsaicinoids which slows down microbial growth, protecting the seeds. Maybe a few insect chew marks on your peppers will heat them up?
Short of moving to a warmer climate, what can you do in your garden to make them hotter?
- Water less once fruit has formed.
- Fertilize more, especially with nitrogen. Even if the peppers don’t get hotter, you should get a higher yield.
- Harvest 40-50 days after fruit set, or when the pepper stops growing in size.
- Don’t listen to nonsense on the internet.