The Green Woman

Five Little Peppers and How They Grew

KarenEach year, the International Herb Association nominates an Herb of the Year™ as a way of focusing attention on either an underused or unknown herb. This year, Capsicum has been chosen as the 2016 Herb of the Year™, as it is not only used for culinary purposes, but also for medicinal use, as an ornamental, and as a pest deterrent. The main types of peppers are:

Capsicum annuum – most peppers we know, bells, pimentoes, jalapenos, etc.
Capsicum baccatum – aji types
Capsicum pubescens – rocoto
Capsicum chinese – habaneros
Capsicum frutescens - tabasco

Peppers are a New World plant, originating somewhere in South America. Christopher Columbus, searching for a route to the Spice Islands, stumbled on these plants accidentally. He was seeking pepper, or Piper nigrum, and found the native people called Arawak using a plant they called aga or aji as a seasoning for their root vegetable age, or yam, as we know it today. This flavor was hot and pungent and reminded Columbus of pepper, and so it was named. Thus began the plant's exodus to many other lands, as seeds and pods were distributed around the world. Five species had already been domesticated by the time of his arrival, and it's hard to believe that so many cultures have embraced it as their own. Africa, Italy, India, Thailand, and China are a few of the countries with which peppers are associated.

Variegated foliage of Fish pepper

Many tropical locales use hot peppers, and with good reason. Hot peppers are considered “yin” and bring heat to surface capillaries, where it dissipates, resulting in a cooling sensation. It is said that in Mexico, because of a devoted consumption of fiery peppers, a man who unfortunately perishes in the desert will never be devoured by vultures, because the peppers cause their bodies to be too hot and spicy to eat!

I find hot peppers enjoyable to grow and use. My favorites are Fish, a variegated pepper; Hinklehatz, a German variety that grows extremely well and prolifically for me; and Bulgarian Carrot, whose neon orange color adds a nice touch to salsas and gazpacho. As to sweet peppers, I love Aconcagua, whose tall plants yield an abundant crop of 7- to 9-inch-long, thin-walled peppers that ripen in my zone.

What to do with all the peppers you grow? There are lots of ways to preserve them. I love to pickle them, dry them in a dehydrator, use them in chili, spaghetti, or barbecue sauce. Make a hot pepper vinegar, preserve them in sherry (you can use both the peppers and the sherry), and make Fire Cider. Try them — you'll enjoy growing them and using the abundant fruits.

Hinkelhatz peppers in vinegar

Fire Cider

• 1 large horseradish root, peeled
• 3 medium size fresh ginger roots
• 5 - 6 fresh turmeric roots
• 5 - 10 small hot peppers
• 2 small onions
• apple cider vinegar
• 4 heads of garlic, peeled

Grate horseradish in food processor and place in large bowl. Shred the turmeric, onions, garlic, ginger and hot peppers and add to bowl. Mix well. Place ingredients into 2 large (2 quart) canning jars and cover with apple cider vinegar — the best kind to use is one that has the "mother". I used 2-1/2 quarts of vinegar, being sure I covered the shredded roots. If you don't have the large jars, you can use any extra large wide mouthed jar, or use several smaller ones. Place in a dark place for 4-8 weeks, shake frequently, then strain and re-bottle.

Fire Cider

Fish Pepper Dip

This dip is only slightly spicy and is equally good on crackers or with vegetables. You can use the peppers before they are ripe, when they are cream and green colored.

Makes about 1 cup

• 4 ounces cream cheese
• 4 ounces sour cream
• 3 to 4 Fish peppers (or other hot pepper), seeds and stem removed
• 2 scallions, white part only
• 1 tablespoon parsley

Place all ingredients in a food processor and blend. Let chill 3 to 4 hours before serving.

Lucille's Tomato Soup

Lucille's Tomato Soup

My good friend, Lucille Dressler, gave me this recipe years ago. I have added additional herbs, as well as hot peppers. I make this at least once a year, when the garden is at its peak and bountiful.

• 5-6 cups ripe, cut up tomatoes (bite size — I use several kinds, giving this soup great visual appeal)
• 1 red, orange, or yellow pepper, finely chopped
• 1/2 seedless cucumber, chopped
• 1/2 cup sweet onion, finely chopped
• 2-3 hot peppers, finely chopped, as hot or mild as you like (optional)
• 2 cans low sodium beef broth
• 1/4 cup red wine vinegar (or any herbal vinegar)
• 4 - 5 lovage stems and leaves, finely chopped
• 15+ garlic chive leaves, chopped
• 20+ basil leaves, chopped
• salad burnet stems, leaves stripped and stems discarded

Mix the tomatoes, pepper, cucumber, onion, and hot peppers in a large, non-reactive bowl. Add the broth, vinegar, and herbs, and mix well. Refrigerate overnight to blend flavors.

Sure Signs of Spring

KarenThe catkins of the pussywillows (Salix) burst out of their branches in early February this year, one of the earliest spring blooms I have encountered in central MA. By early March, the furry catkins had already started to turn from a furry gray color to a more luminous yellow tinged with red, signifying the beginning of pollination. The pussy willow is dioecious, meaning there are male and female trees. The males are the ones with the showy catkins that we prefer to use for decoration. The picture below shows the catkins as they have begun to put out pollen. This early bloom attracts lots of insects, so it is a great plant to grow for pollinators. The Chinese use this plant in their celebration of Chinese New Year as a sign of growth and prosperity.

Pussy willow

Earlier than even the pussywillow is the native skunk cabbage (Symplocampus foetidus), which begins its bloom when snow and ice have still locked most plants in a wintry embrace. The strange looking hooded spath emerges from its wetland location — a reddish-purple spire breaking through ice and snow. Pollinated by carrion-feeding insects, this plant has the ability to generate a temperature 15 to 35 degrees warmer than the surrounding air, thus helping to lure flies and bees to its pungent aroma. Breaking a leaf of this plant as it matures will give you an understanding of why it is called "skunk cabbage". It has been used medicinally, particularly by Native Americans.

Skunk cabbage

Some associate the first sign of spring with the robin (Turdus migratorious). Though migratory, meaning wintering in the south and returning to breed in the north, some colonies of birds stay year-round in the Northeast. So you may see a “local” instead of a returning bird. It was a custom in Quebec that the first person to see a robin meant they would have good luck for the year. The colonists encountered this bird when they first arrived in the New World, and associated it with the robin red-breast of England. Their robin, however, was from the flycatcher family, and only a distant cousin of the American robin, which is from the thrush family. However, they called it robin, and the name has become permanently attached to this perky bird.

A truer avian sign of spring is the arrival of the red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoenicius). This true migratory bird usually appears in early March, and its distinctive call — sounding like "look at me" — is cheerfully heard from the tops of shrubs and reeds. The males raise their wings to emphasize the beautiful red and yellow shoulder pads — no doubt to entice the ladies. This year, they appeared at my feeders in February — early, to be sure.

But my favorite spring phenomenon is the chorus of the spring peeper (Pseudacris crucifer). This tiny little frog, only about 3/4 inch long, belts out a mighty croak, calling in the night and into early morning. This serenade begins one night with one lonely call, and multiplies nightly into a resounding chorus of "peeps" — a remarkably loud vocalization for such a small creature. This year they began their chorus March 9 — the earliest ever for me here in central MA. Some call them “Pinkletinks” and say they sound like jingle bells.

After winter, these wonderful plants and animals are a joy to behold, as they manifest the beginning of the spring season and our entrance into a new phase of the year.

Happy Peeping!