How to grow a chilli with your kind of kick

It is easy to overlook the value of chillies as ornamental plants in their own right...

Istanbul, Jale Akbar, İnteraz - 27 January 2020, 12:09

The first signs of spring might well be weeks, if not months, away, so for those impatient for warmer days ahead there is one summer crop you can get sowing right now: chillies.


Despite having grown up in southeast Asia, where we can eat chillies three times a day, it wasn’t until I moved to the UK that I really became fascinated by the enormous array of weird and wonderful varieties out there, especially from small, indie growers. With literally hundreds of varieties, in an almost infinite variety of flavour, use and spice-level, I believe there must be a chilli for everyone – even people who think they don’t like chillies! So here’s my rundown of niche varieties you will never be able to buy in stores.


For beginners, my top choice would be ‘Apache’, which offers up generous crops of bright red, bullet-shaped fruits with a fiery kick. In my experience, they are the most tolerant of a range of environmental conditions, making them the easiest to grow, even outdoors in lacklustre summers.


If you want something more exotic, give ‘Lemon Drop’ a try. It will require the warmth of indoor conditions, but rewards you with beautiful, lemon-shaped, canary yellow fruit that even have (weirdly) a citrusy brightness to complement their bold spiciness. Fans of Peruvian food will recognise these as the iconic ‘Ají limon’, which is indispensable for all sorts of dishes, yet is essentially unstocked by most supermarkets in the UK.


It is easy to overlook the value of chillies as ornamental plants in their own right. ‘Fairy lights’ is a UK-bred variety with purple-tinged leaves, crowned in a dazzling display of fruits in yellow, orange, red and purple. It would be hard to think of a more fitting name. They have a good flavour, too, with a medium spice level, so definitely not a gimmick.


Finally, for those who don’t like spicy food, there are a range of chillies out there that have been specifically bred for little to no fieriness, so they can be eaten more like vegetables than spices. After all, bell peppers are just chillies that lack spice! I love Padrón peppers from northwest Spain, whose small, green fruit have a wonderful mineral bitterness. Ever wondered why they appear so much on Japanese menus? There is a very similar variety to Padrón in Asia, called ‘Shishito’, which sadly never make it to our stores, so if you want to get the real thing you’ll have to grow it yourself.


To get sowing, all you need is a sunny, warm windowsill and a tray of seed compost. You can do this anytime from now until mid-March, after which buying plug plants is probably your best bet. No garden? No problem. Chillies make great houseplants. As the mature size of plants is directly proportional to their root run, simply keeping these in smaller pots will keep them manageable. The only extra thing you need to do indoors is help pollination along by tickling each flower with a soft paintbrush and anyone, anywhere can get a homegrown chilli harvest.


The Guardian