Hot Hawaiian Chile Peppers
By Glenn I. Teves, UH County Extension Agent
For many local folks, chile pepper water is an indispensable addition to a meal, and can add pizazz to meat, fish, and soup dishes. There are many variations of this condiment combining water, shoyu, different kinds of vinegar, and even garlic with lots of chiles. Columbus misnamed chiles as peppers, mistaking them for black peppers due to their “heat.” The name “peppers” or “chile peppers” stuck with this plant, and is commonly used today.
Capsicum fruitescens is the Latin name for Hawaiian chiles, introduced to Hawaii around 1815. It was called “nioi” by the Hawaiians, a generic name given to all chiles with second names based on its shape such as nioi kamakahala for round or “eye shaped” types. Some were even used in lei, and also concocted into salves or creams to treat arthritis.
Hawaiian chiles are considered “hot” by any scale. The heat or capsaicin content in chile is measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHU), with Hawaiian chiles hitting the scales at 50,000 to 70,000 SHU. Contrast this with the hottest chile, Bhut Jolokia from India at 1,000,000 SHU, and Habanero types at 250,000 SHU. But it’s not just about heat; it’s also about sweetness and flavor, and this is where the Hawaiian chile tops the scale.
Plants can attain heights of four feet or more, bear fruit for several years, and can also be pruned back and allowed to flush again. Diseases and insects can affect them, but the key is to “know when to hold them and know when to fold them.” As the plants age, they weaken and harden, becoming more susceptible to diseases and insects. At this point, it’s better to start new seedlings. Major diseases include powdery mildew fungus where a whitish powder on leaves will cause premature leaf drop. Viruses will also affect plants, such as Tobacco Mosaic Virus and Potato Virus Y, which create a mottled look to the leaves and weaken them.
Insects include pepper weevils, which lay eggs in the flower and cause premature fruit drop. Sanitation is the key; pick up all dropped fruit and dispose of them. Broad mites will deform newer leaves, but can be controlled with a sulfur spray. Plant hoppers, clusters of little insects with spines on them, will congregate on stems and usually attack weak older plants by sucking on plant juices. The mature stage of these plant hoppers are green with pointed heads. The use of Neem, an organic insecticide can control them. In order to keep one step ahead of pests and diseases, move plants around the yard and don’t plant in the same area.
Keep plants actively growing starting with 10-30-10 or comparable fertilizer at planting. Light doses of a balanced fertilizer (1:1:1 ratio) will keep them actively growing until they flower and fruit. Chiles will be hottest when the weather is hot and when plants are under water stress, such as in Kaunakakai. Conversely, those growing in cool wet areas will not be as hot. You can create vintage chile pepper water since, if properly made, it can last for years if you don’t drink it up sooner.