These hot, colourful plants do surprisingly well in British gardens, says Miranda Kimberley.

C. 'Apache' - image: FlickR/Mannewaar
C. 'Apache' - image: FlickR/Mannewaar

Who would have thought that the hottest chilli in the world would be bred and grown in Britain? Naga Viper, produced by British chilli farmer Gerald Fowler of the Chilli Pepper Company in less-than-tropical Cumbria scores a hefty 1,359,000 on the Scoville scale of spicy heat.

Perhaps they appreciate our temperamental climate, or perhaps it is because we treat our plants a bit mean, forcing them to produce hotter pods.

The active chemical in chillies, capsaicin, actually prompts the body to produce endorphins, so a feeling of well-being follows the burning sensation. But the added appeal is that chillies also are great ornamental plants, with a huge diversity of fruit shape and colour. They look good on the patio and some varieties do well in hanging baskets.

There are more than 4,000 varieties of chilli around the world, and more than 200 of these are available in the UK. They tend to be categorised as the hot varieties, the culinary varieties and the ornamental types. Chilli seeds are available from mail order companies and garden centres for growing from March onwards, while young and mature chilli plants are sold later in the season.

Chilli varieties are bred from several species. Capsicum annuum is the most extensively cultivated throughout the world and its varieties include the cayenne and jalapeno types, as well as the familiar bell or sweet peppers.

Another widely cultivated species, C. chinense, which includes the Habanero group, is more tender and is best grown inside. Other cultivated species are C. baccatum, which includes the typically South American Aji ("ah-hee") peppers, C. frutescens, which includes the Tabasco group, and C. pubescens.

An ideal impulse plant when in fruit, chillies can also be grown from seed. They should be sown from March onwards and given some heat - ideally 23-25 degC. They usually germinate within 10 days but some types, such as the Habanero group, take a bit longer. Seedlings need bright light and should be grown on between 13-15 degC.

When the seedlings have several sets of leaves, carefully prick them out into 10cm pots. They should be fed from then on, first with a weak feed then with a high-nitrogen feed.

When the first flowers appear, a high-potash feed should be used to initiate flower and fruit production. The growing tip is usually pinched out to promote branching and staking is likely to be necessary as they gain fruit.

About a month later, pot them on again into oneor two-litre pots and by early June they should be potted on into their final five-litre containers.

Harden off any plants that are going to stand outside during the summer for two weeks before they are placed out in their final positions.Plants grown outside and those kept a bit drier and underfed are more likely to produce hotter chillies.

What the specialists say

- Sarah Hunt, owner, World of Chillies, Manchester

"People become obsessive about chillies in the same way that others become obsessive about orchids - perhaps because both have such a huge number of varieties from all around the world.

"People grow chillies for three different reasons. Some for the machismo and fascination of the really hot varieties such as Bhut Jolokia, Trinidad Scorpion, Naga Morich or the slightly less hot Habaneros, Scotch Bonnets, Piri Piri; some grow them for specific culinary purposes; and some for their ornamental qualities.

"There are a growing number of really beautiful chilli plants. Numex Twilight has rainbow-coloured pods and does really well outside. 'Prairie Fire' is a dwarf variety that is great for hanging baskets. Medusa or Chilly chilli have no heat to them but look stunning.

"Chillies are pretty sturdy plants as long as you follow a few simple rules. If you are growing them outdoors, find something hardy such as Numex Twilight, Filius Blue, jalapenos, cayennes or cherry chillies. C. chinense varieties really do need a greenhouse in our climate."

- Matt Simpson, owner, Simpsons Seeds, Wiltshire

"Chillies are a plant that appeals to the younger, 'funkier' crowd. This is demonstrated by the attendance at the chilli fiesta held every year at West Dean in Sussex and at other chilli festivals around the country.

"Varieties of C. chinense and C. baccatum stand out for me. These two have the best flavours and in some cases the most heat. We seem to have a good climate for hot chillies - we are getting hotter chillies than the Americans, who are being rather grumpy about it. Our company sells the extreme heat seeds, but my belief is that what you might call culinary chillies will be more useful to the trade in the long run."

In practice

- Sarah Tune, planteria manager, Squires Garden Centres, Surrey

"We sell plug plants from early March that need to be grown on by the customer with some protection. As the days get warmer, from early June, we have semi-mature plants available.

"Mature plants need watering two or three times per week to keep the compost moist. Once the plant begins to fruit, we feed them every two weeks with a liquid fertiliser.

"We point out to customers that the longer you leave chillies on the plant the hotter the flavour, so those who prefer them mild should harvest them early or prepare to be blown away."

Species & varieties

- C. 'Aurora' is a dwarf type that suits the window sill, conservatory or patio. It has bushy, purple-tinged foliage and fruits that range in colour from purple and lavender to orange and red. One of the first chillies to come into fruit.

- C. 'Bhut Jolokia'. Formerly the world record-holding chilli, now superseded by the Naga Viper. It has large, crumpled fruits that ripen from green to red, becoming hotter as they do so. The peppers also have a fresh citrus flavour.

- C. 'Bulgarian Carrot' really does look like a baby carrot. The bright orange peppers having a fresh, fruity flavour. A compact plant ideally suited to containers.

- C. 'Chocolate Habanero' does not taste like chocolate but has a lovely chocolate-brown skin. A lot hotter than the regular Habanero.

- C. 'Etna' Award of Garden Merit (AGM) is both a seriously hot chilli and an excellent ornamental, with clusters of bright red fruits held upright on the plant. A medium-sized variety.

- C. 'Explosive Blast' is one of the most beautiful ornamental chillies available, with clusters of fiery fruits in ivory, yellow and red. These compact plants are ideally suited to pots, growing to no more than 30cm in height.

- C. 'Filius Blue' AGM is an attractive chilli with purple-tinged foliage sometimes speckled with white. It produces small, ovoid chillies, which start out a purple-blue colour before ripening to red. Plants grow to about 60cm tall.

- C. 'Lemon Drop' is a tall, sprawling bush, more than 1m tall, that bears long chillies. Fruits start out pale-green and mature to a bright yellow and have a strong lemon flavour.

- C. 'Numex Twilight' has peppers from purple through to yellow, orange and red and attractive dark foliage. Its size will be limited by its pot size so you can have a small or large plant. Does really well outside and is very drought resistant.

- C. 'Prairie Fire' AGM is a dwarf variety that is well suited to a conservatory, window sill, patio pot or hanging basket. It produces masses of pointed fruits maturing from cream to orange to dark red. The chillies are pretty hot and keep coming all summer.

- C. 'Purple Tiger' is a distinctive variety with tricolour foliage - purple, green and white - that makes it really stand out. It also has lovely teardrop-shaped fruits that mature through from purple to tricolour to red.

- C. 'Trinidad Scorpion' may shortly usurp Naga Viper as the world's hottest chilli. Looks like a Habanero but with a scorpion's tail.

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