Sunday, October 30, 2011

Peppers, Part 2

What’s blooming in the area: Hybrid tea roses, datura, Sensation cosmos, French marigolds; grape leaves dead and dropping, apricot leaves dropping.

Beyond the walls and fences: Clammy weed, stickleaf, chamisa, broom senecio, golden hairy and purple asters; leaves on Virginia creeper killed by cold temperatures; Russian olive dropping leaves and uncovering clusters of berries; leaves on blue gilia and leatherleaf globemallow turning yellow.

In my yard, looking east: Winecup mallow, large-leaf soapwort, pink evening primrose, Rose Queen salvia, Shirley poppies; snowball leaves turning red; Japanese barberry leaves turning bright orange; sidalcea leaves turning yellow.

Looking south: Floribunda roses; first ripe raspberries of the season; cold temperatures killed the zinnias.

Looking west: Calamintha; leaves on Rumanian sage, Mönch aster, David phlox, Silver king artemisia and chives turning yellow; leaves on caryopteris turning yellow and dropping.

Looking north: Chocolate flower, blanket flower, black-eyed Susan, chrysanthemum; catalpa leaves turned brown and dropping; Bradford pear leaves turned dark red; cold temperatures killed yellow cosmos.

Bedding plants: Sweet alyssum, pansy, snapdragon, nicotiana, impatiens, moss rose; tomatoes ripening, peppers drying.

Inside: Aptenia, asparagus fern, zonal geranium.

Animal sightings: Harvester and small black ants.

Weather: Rained day and night Wednesday; after days of temperatures falling below freezing, we got our first frost Saturday morning; 10:45 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: Red or green turns out to be more than a trick question sprung on visitors. Habits of taste may have been determined by the pepper plant’s growing cycle.

There are some 25 species of peppers, of which most eaten in this part of the world are some variant of Capsicum annuum derived from a selection or hybrid developed by Fabien Garcia at New Mexico State University. His inspiration was the Anaheim, developed for a California cannery around 1900. His first release, New Mexico Number 9 in 1921, was aimed at providing a uniformly sized, predictably mild pepper for commercial canners that would appeal to Anglos and could be grown around Hatch.

Peppers, of course, had been grown in northern New Mexico long before Garcia was born. In the 1830's, Josiah Gregg said red pepper “enters into nearly every dish at every meal” in Santa Fé while chile verde was considered “one of the great luxuries.”

A hundred years later chile had become one of the few cash crops in the Española valley. People would take their ristras into Abiquiú or Española where Bond and Nohl examined them carefully before accepting them for credit. They shipped the chiles north on the Denver and Rio Grande.

People in Chimayó remember that if their crop was rejected by store keepers, their fathers would go to places like Mora or Truches or Peñasco to swap the chiles for beans or potatoes or goat cheese. Some had connections through a relative in Mora. Elsewhere, Tila Vila remembers strangers would open their doors if they realized the pedlars were from “good” Chimayó families.

Despite the Latin name, chiles are perennial plants that can bloom their first season, but need time to do so at temperatures above 60. When the real heat arrives, they tend to bloom less until late summer. The bell-shaped flowers drop when night temperatures are above 75 degrees, and fruit development is delayed if daytime temperatures reach 90. The first peppers tend to be larger than the later ones.

To speed the growing season, Leonora Curtin says people used to plant seeds in April or May in tins or boxes they kept on their window sills until the weather warmed enough to transplant them. The move should have been made by May 3 for them to develop their glossy green skins by the middle of September.

Even then, the growing season for a pepper is so long it may never reach the red stage in the mountains or in a summer like this when drought and heat send plants into periods of quiescence. A typical green chile is ready to harvest 120 days after planting, but the red needs 165. By necessity, dried green may have become the standard.

Now we can buy good sized bedding plants. Each time I went into a garden center this past April, there was some man unhappy that peppers hadn’t appeared yet.

I finally settled on what was available, Sandia, a cross between the original Garcia pepper and an Anaheim which Roy Harper released in 1956 through New Mexico State. It’s primary virtue is that it matures earlier. During the summer heat, it sets fruit lower on the plants which makes it less vulnerable to the high winds that can come with the monsoons.

When I put the seedlings out the middle of May in a relatively protected area, they wilted every afternoon. The members of the nightshade family have shallow roots and need lots of water. They only stabilized after I stopped watering them each evening with a garden hose and gave them their own soaker that ran at least 15 minutes a day.

In July the light-green plants finally put out a few white flowers, that produced some rather fat, crooked fruits by mid August. About the time the chile roasters were leaving the end of September, the skins turned darker and glossier. The first of October they were turning red and beginning to dry.

There was a very short period when they were at their prime. People, both local and in Hatch, sweep through their fields several times a season picking the green chiles.

My neighbors across the road have four strings of red peppers hanging from their eaves, two long and two short. The latter look redder and fatter, as if the strings represented different croppings, and they were the most recent.

In the 1980's, Roy Nakayama and Frank Matta, also of NMSU, crossed Sandia with “a Northern New Mexico strain” to produce Española, an even earlier maturing red chile.

The famed Chimayó peppers were smaller than others and may have been some special variety brought north by migrants from Zacatecas that self-selected itself into something special in that high environment. In the 1930's, the area along the Chama river produced more strings of chiles per acre than any other part of the valley, but none were considered as flavorful.

The distinctive flavor may have come from the seed’s genetics, from the altitude or soil or water, or it may have come from timing. The chiles may have reached their most flavorful stage at just the right time to fire up the hornos to dry them.

For the past two weeks morning temperatures have hovered around freezing. Pepper plants can’t handle cold temperatures. Mine are probably still alive because I put them next to a southwest facing wall protected by some shrubs that haven’t lost their leaves yet.

My neighbors have picked their corn and peppers, removed the corn stalks and squash vines, and left the tomato and chile plants with unripe fruit to continue to redden. At some point soon, the remaining chiles will need to be picked and dried, because the weather will change. When we get our first heavy frost, the internal cells will rupture, release sap and incubate internal mold.

Bosland, Paul W. and Stephanie Walker. “Growing Chiles in New Mexico,” 2004 revision.

_____, Danise Coon and Eric Votava. “The Chile Cultivars of New Mexico State University,” 2008.

Curtin, Leonora Scott Muse. Healing Herbs of the Upper Rio Grande, 1947, republished 1997, with revisions by Michael Moore.

Epicentre. “Chile Pepper Varieties,” The Epicentre Spices website.

Gregg, Josiah. Commerce of the Prairies: Life on the Great Plains in the 1830's and 1840's, 1844, republished by The Narrative Press, 2001.

US Department of Interior. Tewa Basin Study, volume 2, 1935, reprinted by Marta Weigle as Hispanic Villages of Northern New Mexico, 1975, on 1930's.

Usner, Don J. Sabino’s Map: Life in Chimayó’s Old Plaza, 1995, includes quote from Tila Vila.

Photograph: Sandia chile beginning to dry, 23 October 2011.

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