Edible House Plants



Some of you may have wondered about the chili pepper featured in Survivor: The Office Plant (Issue 98) . I certainly did. Here’s the whole story.

all pictures: Offices of Dr Nichola Bott, Stamford CT 2003-2004

Last winter, here in Stamford, CT, I spied a pepper plant growing in a friend’s kitchen, on the floor, out of direct sun, next to a heat vent. This was not one of your wimpy, toxic ornamentals but a full-fledged, real-eating, garden chili pepper!

Since chilies are a full-sun, warm-weather garden plant, I assumed that over-wintering one in the house, even in full sun, would be great for spider mites and the like, but the chili would be begging for a merciful death by Christmas. However, inspection showed the plant to be healthy and happy; great leaf color and lovely chilies. Surprise. Who knew they’d do so well indoors? My friend says “oh, we got it from a friend, and it’s nice to have fresh chilies handy. We put it on the balcony in the summer”. Huh?

Sometime later, I discovered TWO similar peppers doing wonderfully in the offices of Stamford, CT, healer Dr. Nicola Bott. She also said that she got them from a friend.

In an ideal world, we’d all be at least semi-vegetarians, eating only locally-grown, organic produce. We’d be saving the planet (and ourselves) from untold waste of our finite fossil fuel supplies, and many other environmental and health hazards. A “house chili” might not save the planet but any vegetable that can easily be grown in the average apartment has great potential. Imagine if you could grow, year-round, all the tomatoes, peppers, greens, and squash you needed in your living room window. Fresh, chemical-free, and cheap, with CO2 – oxygen exchange at no extra charge.

According to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden , which even has an annual chili pepper festival, you can grow chilies indoors, IF you have a greenhouse or use grow lights 16 hours a day. It helps to keep the peppers warm, too. OK, that makes horticultural sense, but the plants I saw were thriving under ordinary household (or worse yet, office) conditions.

Finally, I meet the pepper-giving friend, who turns out to be a professional performing artist from South Texas, who we’ll call the “Texas Pepper Man”. And the X-peppers? Well, he says, he’d bred them to grow indoors. What?

Chilies are a big deal in Texas, that’s true; but the guy moves north and doesn’t just grow his own. No, he creates his own hybrid just to get a decent chili hit in the winter? Isn’t this a bit extreme even for a Texan? Does he, by chance, have a degree in horticulture? No, in fact, before he started the chilies, he’d never even had a houseplant.

picture: The Texas Pepper Man inspects the crop at Dr. Bott’s

He explains that in South Texas, chilies, descendant from the Bolivian Ur-chili, are a common sight. They grow wild, their seeds spread by birds. The wild chilies are hard to germinate (unless passed through a bird’s stomach, then kept hot and moist in good light). Then, the seedlings have to survive all 10 hot, dry months of summer. Those that reach maturity are tough, shrubby plants capable of producing chilies for several years. Chilies freely cross-pollinate so there’s lots of variety in the gene bank. It’s not unknown for South Texans to “adopt” a particularly flavorsome high-producer by digging it up and taking it home to the garden.

In South Texas, he says, chilies are such a part of the cuisine that women carry them in their purses as a New Yorker might carry a bag of her favorite tea or a hit of chocolate. (Dr. Bott explains that chilies, like chocolate, stimulate production of feel-good brain chemicals. Technically, it is known that chilies contain capsaicin which causes the brain to release endorphins but, according to Dr. Bott, there’s more going on chemically but it’s not fully understood as yet.).

So meanwhile, the Texas Pepper Man can’t get “good” chilies up here in the North Country except for a few weeks in the summer. Apparently chilies, like corn, lose their magic soon after being picked. (He says that you can keep them in the fridge for a bit or freeze them or turn them into “keeping” dishes like salsa.) So, the Texas Pepper Man’s making periodic chili runs to Texas.

Then, in the mid 1990’s, his mother shows him a nice cross-bred plant she’d found, with peppers so juicy that they actually squirt in the mouth. Yum. So he brings some seeds back to Connecticut and starts about 30 in pots on his deck, weeding out the less desirable plants as the summer progresses. By first frost, there’s a couple of good plants left. He brings one in but, predictably, it languishes and dies. So next spring, our Texas Pepper Man starts selecting seedlings with the eye to over-wintering one indoors….

Today, the Texan who never owned a houseplant, but who now can chatter endlessly about cross-pollination and seed germination, has successfully created a true indoor chili pepper.

Fortunately, there’s more to come: he has the patent application papers on his desk and perhaps, in a few years, all Monday Garden readers will be lucky enough to own one of Texas Pepper Man’s (totally delicious) eco-chilies.

©Susan W. Sweeney 2004.