Red, green or Christmas?  If you know what Christmas means in this context, chances are, you’re a chile fan like me.  Chile is member of genus Capsicum which is part of the nightshade family of flowering plants and is related to the tomato and the potato.  Most people think that green and red chiles are different types of peppers. They are in fact a fruit of the same plant; they are simply picked at different times. The red chile is the ripened version of the green chile. (Tea shares the same confusion: green, white, black, they are all from the same plant).

It all began with Christopher Columbus… while exploring the Caribbean islands he was introduced to the chile.  Columbus called them red peppers as their spicy punch was reminiscent of the black and white pepper (corns) from India and because the pods were red.  From the Caribbean, the chile plant made its way back to Spain before slipping into obscurity, only really being cultivated by Spanish monks. The monks eventually discovered that when dried and pulverized chile peppers made an excellent substitute for peppercorns.  Replacing peppercorns proved to be invaluable to Europe as they were quite expensive, even being used in some localities as currency.

Once chile was cultivated in Spain it quickly spread through Europe and across the globe.  Around 1598 the chile pepper ended up in the hands of Don Juan de Onate as he was dispatched to colonize the northern border of New Spain (now New Mexico).

In 1907 a New Mexico State University horticulturist, Dr. Fabian Garcia selected 14 strains from three varieties of pepper (the Colorado, the negro, and the pasilla) and set up test plots to begin the search for a smoother, meatier, tastier, and milder pepper, that would resist the wilting disease that plagued the unrefined breeds.  After ten years of research a pepper known as College #9 was selected, which led to growers all over New Mexico planting it.  Later, enhanced strains were developed, the best among them the Rio Grande.  This chile thrived and was adopted by farmers around the town of Hatch, New Mexico.  The rest is history.

New Mexico State University continues its research at the Chile Pepper Institute in Las Cruces.

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