New Mexico Chile Breeding

Red or Green?

A question that every New Mexican has an answer to. One little known fact about green and red chiles is that they actually come from the same plant; green chile is harvested early on in the plant’s development, whereas red chile is harvested when the fruit becomes ripe. New Mexico is known for its chile peppers, and the cultivation of chile peppers can be traced back to the first North Americans.

Paul Bosland, author of Capsicums: Innovative Uses for an Ancient Crop and New Mexico State University educator, speaks of the history of the chile pepper plant. He writes that between 5200 and 3400 BC, the Native Americans were growing chile plants. This places chiles among the oldest cultivated crops of the Americas. This is the potential start of the chile pepper in New Mexico and, since then, it has become an important cash crop for the state. “In 2002, almost 17,000 acres were harvested in New Mexico.” Seventeen thousand acres is a considerable amount of land; so what it is that makes New Mexico’s peppers so special?

New Mexico is rumored to have the most flavorful, aromatic green chile in the United States, but is there any truth to this? The improvement of the chile started at New Mexico State University with Fabian Garcia who invented the first New Mexican seed type. Since that day, NMSU has invested in the Chile Pepper Institute and plant breeding of numerous chile peppers. Today, all New Mexican chiles can trace their genetic basis back to New Mexico’s number 9 chile that was first cultivated in the early 1900s, including the popular “Anaheim” green chile.

Capsaicinoids are responsible for a pepper’s heat and were a major part of Fabian Garcia’s research. Photo by the chilepepperinstitute.org

Capsaicinoids are responsible for a pepper’s heat and were a major part of Fabian Garcia’s research. Photo by the chilepepperinstitute.org

Fabian Garcia used hybridization and selection to control the genetic constitution of native peppers. Garcia suspected that selecting for a mild chile would increase consumption among Anglo citizens and pursued breeding peppers of different heats. He also aimed for the cultivation of a large, fleshy, easily canned chile. Danise Coon, New Mexico State educator writes, “While searching for the most easily canned chile, Garcia found that the hardier, blight-resistant chiles were naturally selected for and outcompeted those susceptible to wilt.” This means that the non-desirable peppers weeded themselves out and disease-resistant, desirable peppers were left to thrive and become researched further. One trait to he would research next would be the correlation between capsaicinoids and the heat of a pepper.

Garcia was one of the first horticulturalists to experiment with capsaicinoids. Capsaicinoids are responsible for a pepper’s heat and are prevalent on the seeds of a pepper due to their proximity to the placenta. A pepper’s capsaicin content is influenced by genetics, weather conditions, growing condition and fruit age. However, the most influential factors on the amount of capsaicin in a pepper is genetics and environmental stress. A cultivator can plan for a certain degree of heat in their peppers through selection and by limiting stress. A high degree of stress can change a pepper’s degree of heat and turn a pepper bred for low heat into a hot pepper as well as a hot pepper into a much milder pepper. Some examples of environmental stress would be temperature, precipitation and pollinators.

Chiles are typically self-pollinators, but the presence of insects can induce out-crossing and cross pollination. Cross pollination can affect seed production and make a chile sterile. When a chile is sterile, it is the end of its germline and it can’t germinate other chiles. So, if hybridization and pursuit of a new type of chile is desirable then insects should be excluded from its cultivation. Also, in order to get optimum heat and flavor out of a green chile a cultivator should minimize the environmental stress on their chile crop.

-Posted by Jared

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