Virtually every produce aisle in American supermarkets sports a bin of jalapenos these days. But we’re betting you haven’t seen a colorful bouquet like the peppers we affectionately call “the Spice Girls.” The NuMex spice peppers — Pumpkin Spice, Lemon Spice and Orange Spice — were developed at New Mexico State University’s pepper breeding program, and they are a delightful addition to the hot pepper world!
The culinary importance of peppers is indelibly embedded in Mexico’s history. In the Florentine Codex, written shortly after the Spanish invasion of the Aztec Empire in the 16th century, Franciscan Friar Bernadino de Sahagún described several types and preparations of chile peppers at an Aztec market: fresh pods, chipotles (smoked dried chiles), moles (sauces using a variety of chiles).
The Codex describes at least six types of chile peppers — and one of them was definitely the “jalapeño” type. The Aztec knew it as the “tornalli chilli” (summer chile) in their native Nahuatl language.
Chilies had many other uses beyond cooking, though. The Aztec also used them to pay tribute to dignitaries, a custom that the Spanish invaders kept up for practical reasons. Long before pepper spray, Aztec moms threw chile powder in the kitchen firepit and made their kids inhale the pungent smoke as punishment. The forebears of the Aztecs — the Toltecs, who vanished in the 12th century AD — thrived on trade and agriculture. They developed sophisticated farming techniques such as terraces, irrigation from a network of small dams and channels; and the unique “chinampas,” floating gardens built on swamps. Their staple crop was corn, but they also grew beans, squash, avocados, tomatoes, amaranths, dahlias and chile.
The jalapeño pepper takes its name from the city of Xalapa (Jalapa), the capital of Veracruz, a mountainous state about 60 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. The colonial city enjoys a tropical humid climate, tempered by altitude, where chile would have found a perfect environment. Jalapeños were traditionally grown around Xalapa. Today, however, the northern border state of Chihuahua, is the largest producer … and Mexico as a whole grows about 100,000 acres of jalapeños. In Mexico City, jalapeños are traditionally known as “cuaresmeños” after the word “cuaresma,” the Lenten period of fasting during which no meat is consumed. The peppers flooded the markets during Lent, and were stuffed with cheese and tuna and cooked for a traditional Lenten dish.
Jalapeños followed the Mexican immigration to the United States, where they’re virtually ubiquitous. The state of Texas even named the jalapeño as its state pepper.
In 1888, Dr. Fabian Garcia started the hot pepper breeding program at New Mexico State in Las Cruces, the oldest such program in the U.S. He is credited with the selection and development of the Anaheim and New Mexican chilies.
Dr. Paul Bosland has built on Garcia’s work, and among other innovations developed the NuMex Spice series. By crossing a variety called “Early Jalapeno” with “Permagreen,” a bell pepper that stays green even when mature, Bosland observed a whole range of colors in succeeding generations. He selected and stabilized the gorgeous Pumpkin, Orange and Lemon peppers, which were released in 1993.
The three siblings are well suited for growing under the high temperatures and low humidity typical of southern New Mexico. The plants are compact and produce an early concentrated set of fruit.
Orange Spice is the hottest of the trio — about 80,000 Scoville units — and has a bit of a corky look to it. The others have smooth skin and are milder than a typical jalapeno.
The Chile Pepper Institute, also located at New Mexico State, was founded in 1992, and its mission is to promote and educate about chile peppers. Danise Coon is in charge of the place, and she’ll teach you everything hot pepper at the Teaching Garden, which is open for visits during the growing season.
Find NuMex Spice pepper seeds here.