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SEED STORIES | Chiltepin Pepper: Wild Chile of the Borderlands

October 19, 2019


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. The word “chiltepin” is thought to have
been derived from the Nuhuatl combination word meaning “flea chile,” an apparent
reference to their size — and their spicy bite. 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. 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 but 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. 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. Baker Creek is pleased to offer a Chiltepin
strain collected from a mix of wild strains that retains much of the growing habit and
characteristics of this “mother of all chilies.”

19 Comments

  • Reply Heavens Essentials October 18, 2019 at 5:27 pm

    I will have to try these out in my garden.

  • Reply Prepsteading With Nana Benda October 18, 2019 at 5:32 pm

    Ice cream wow really? thanks for sharing.

  • Reply Main Channel October 18, 2019 at 5:34 pm

    My mother has been growing these since before I was born! They are really hardy, require very little maintenance and you get good yields. They can even continue growing in fall in the 9b conditions.

  • Reply Cheril Cooper October 18, 2019 at 5:49 pm

    I'm still waiting for my catalog so I can order a bunch of seeds.

  • Reply Gary B October 18, 2019 at 6:02 pm

    being from Texas, ate these all the time. We would collect them when working cattle to have that day.
    Wild Turkey that have been eaten chilitpins have Awesome flavor.

  • Reply Up Rooted October 18, 2019 at 6:29 pm

    Love this. Great information. As a native Arizonan, transplanted in Tennessee, the scenery is especially beautiful and appreciated. 🌶💚🥰

  • Reply Chelsea October 18, 2019 at 6:30 pm

    🌟⚡🌛⚡☀️⚡👁💛👁⚡☀️⚡🌜⚡🌟

  • Reply James Michael October 18, 2019 at 7:05 pm

    Chilli poquin
    I love these .
    Make your forehead sweat.

  • Reply Brian Berrios October 18, 2019 at 7:28 pm

    The Wiri Wiri pepper from Guyana, is very fruity and spicy. Makes a great spicy ketchup!

  • Reply russ sherwood October 18, 2019 at 7:39 pm

    i cant wait to get my catalog in the mail,, this and many other seed varietys are going to be tried in next years gardens for sure,,thank you for the videas/ ideas and videos

  • Reply TalkingThreadsMedia October 18, 2019 at 8:06 pm

    Yikes! Chiltepin is hotter than ghost pepper??? No, thanks. I will stick with growing SWEET PEPPERS!
    Michelle Johnson — I thoroughly enjoy hearing the back story to seeds and their history. You do such a good job narrating and producing these stories. Thank you! Best wishes from Kate in Olympia, WA. 10/18/2019.

  • Reply Tyler Smalley October 18, 2019 at 9:07 pm

    Not seeing it on the site – is it listed under a different name?

  • Reply daddyjohn2007 October 18, 2019 at 9:27 pm

    😎👌👍🖖✌😁

  • Reply Jennifer Esomar October 19, 2019 at 2:12 am

    So cool!

  • Reply ogadl ogadl October 19, 2019 at 4:16 am

    Everyone please remember to give a thumbs up for these nicely presented videos!! Giving a “thumbs up” helps the YouTube algorithm understand that we enjoy this content and then will hopefully place these videos in others video feeds. Thus by us thumbs upping we can hopefully get more people interested in growing rare and wonderful items from Baker Creek. Just by a simple action we can try to help contribute to saving plant species!

  • Reply Weldon Nicks October 19, 2019 at 4:41 am

    Grow them in my garden, love them

  • Reply 1fanger October 19, 2019 at 12:40 pm

    I traded for an envelope of Chiltepin whole peppers about 10 years ago. I was able to cultivate one plant for almost 3 years before it died. You can`t leave it in the ground in temperate regions. My plant was grown in a large pot so I could bring it in the house in the colder months. It was actually developing bark, or what looked like bark on it`s very hard woody stem and lower branches. I still have about a cup of the peppers that I harvested before it died.

  • Reply martin nunez October 19, 2019 at 2:11 pm

    Best flavor out there if ur making Mexican food it’s a must have heat is there then goes quick awesome….lmk if u need seeds

  • Reply Georg Carlson October 19, 2019 at 5:04 pm

    one of my faves as it hits nicely but doesn't linger long

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