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Nov 2011 cover image

Flora Fact: Tiny Terror

Fiery chile pequín is the state’s only native pepper.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

In the fall, as soon as hints of red tinge tiny chile pequíns, the race is on.

“If you want some, you have to be vigilant and check the bushes every day,” advises Mary Jane Saddington, who grew up in the South Texas town of Taft. “When the peppers turn red, birds gobble them up.”

As a youngster, she picked the ripe peppers from bushes at her grandfather’s house.

“Chile pequíns were always kept in a little bottle with vinegar and used on everything,” recalls Saddington, who now lives in Virginia. “I’d put some on my chili, beans and eggs.”

When chewed, pequíns burn. The searing sensation stems from a chemical compound called capsaicin that’s found within the pod’s ribs and seeds. Since many birds have weak senses of smell and taste, they can gulp down pequíns with no ill effects.

Human tongues, however, are far more sensitive, so just one or two peppers can amply spice an entire pot of chili or stew.

Capsicum annuum — also called bird pepper — occurs in South, Central and East Texas as either an annual or perennial. Bushes typically grow under fences or trees (thanks to birds) and can reach 3 to 5 feet high. They’re happy in shade or sun.

Their small, white flowers bloom in the summer or early fall and produce pea-size green berries that turn bright red when ripe.

Depending on locale, other common names for the fiery fruit include chile petín, chilipiquín and chile tepin. In 1997, the Texas Legislature declared the “chiltepin pepper” as the official state native pepper. (FYI: Chile pequíns are the state’s only native pepper.)

 

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