Chiltepin: Wild Chile Of the Borderlands

Chiltepins are called the “mother of all peppers,” prized by Native communities of the U.S. – Mexico borderlands for centuries. Scarcely bigger than a pea, these wild chiles play well above their weight when it comes to culinary and cultural importance.

They once grew abundantly in the desert borderlands, and thanks to some careful stewardship, in a few places, wild chiltepins still thrive. To this day, many families head out into the high Sonoran desert in fall and set up harvesting camps when the Chiltepins ripen from green to bright red, lighting the landscape like a holiday display. 

The Chiltepin pepper, Capsicum annuum glabriusculum, migrated north, passed along by birds that happily snacked on the berry-like fruit growing upward on the plant. (Unlike humans, birds are impervious to the heat of peppers.) Wild chiltepins are often found growing under mesquite trees or along fence rows where birds nest and roost. 

A depiction of Francisco Hernandez’ botanical explorations.

Birds played such an important role in the spread of chiltepins, in fact, that when Spanish King Felipe  the II sent his personal physician, Dr. Francisco Hernandez, to Nueva Espana in 1570 to document local natural medicinal plants, he named a class of chiles “chiltecpin tolocuitlatl,” which translates from Nuhuatl as “bird poo.” It included, naturally, the chiletepin.

 Chiltepins are native from southern Arizona, Texas, Florida, and New Mexico to Central and South America — making them the United States’ only native wild chile.

When the pepper was domesticated in Mexico about 6,000 years ago, the chiltepin was certainly the source. And while it is not the oldest capsicum species, without it we would not have such beloved cultivated Capsicum annum varieties as jalapeno, poblano, cayenne and bell peppers.

These little peppers go by many names, including bird pepper, chile tepin, chiltepe, but they have a distinctive flavor no matter what you call them!

Smoky, fruity and very pungent, they have a heat rating of 50,000 to 100,000 Scoville units  — more than 20 times hotter than a jalapeno. Unlike a superhot like a ghost pepper, though, the heat comes on strong and quickly mellows. Chiltepins are usually sun dried, made into sauces and added to cheese and ice cream. They’re also often pickled with wild oregano, garlic and salt for a condiment. The Slow Food Foundation For Biodiversity notes that no rural family of Sonorans, Opatas, O’odham or Yaqui would be without a bottle of dried chiltepines on the kitchen table. 

Aside from their culinary uses, chiltepins have also been a traditional remedy for ailments like acid indigestion and parasites. And like all chiles, chiltepins are high in vitamins A and C.

Though chiltepins can be cultivated, wild-harvested ones are the most highly sought after. Chiltepineros, professional chiltepin harvesters, sometimes harvest 30 tons in a season, and the peppers can fetch $80 a pound or more on the market. 

There are only about 15 places in the U.S. that serve as habitats for wild chiltepins.

Chiltepins are a protected species in southern Arizona’s Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. (Shutterstock photo)

Their popularity – along with other environmental factors – put them at such a risk that in 1999, ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan helped persuade the U.S. Forest Service to create the Wild Chile Botanical Area on a 2,500-acre parcel in Arizona’s Coronado National Forest, in the Sonoran Desert. It  was the first botanical reserve for a wild ancestor of a cultivated crop. The peppers are also protected in Big Bend National Park, in southwest Texas, and included on a list of rare and protected plant species in Organ Pipe National Monument in southern Arizona. Commercial harvest is illegal on public lands.

Chiltepin bushes typically grow one to three feet high. They produce more pods during wet years, and very little fruit during droughts.

As farmers domesticated the chiltepin, they selected for pods that grew downward, protected by foliage, and for pods that matured fully on the plant rather than deciduous ones that dropped to the ground to reseed.

Find Chiltepin pepper seeds here.