Hot Hawaiian Chile Peppers
For many local folks, chile pepper water is an indispensable addition to a great local feast, and can add pizazz to meat, fish, and soup dishes. There are many variations of this condiment combining water, shoyu, different kinds of vinegar, and even garlic with lots of chiles.
Christopher Columbus misnamed chiles as peppers, mistaking them for black peppers due to their ‘heat’. The name ‘peppers’ or ‘chile peppers’ stuck with this plant, and is commonly used today.
Hawaiian Chile Peppers
Capsicum fruitescens is the Latin name for Hawaiian chiles, and is also called Bird Chiles for good reason. Birds are known to strip plants clean of the red-orange .22 bullet-sized fruits.
The Hawaiian Chile is not native, but was actually introduced to Hawaii around 1815, and was called ‘nioi, by the Hawaiians, a generic name given to all chiles with second names based on its shape such as ‘nioi kamakahala’ for round or ‘eye shaped’ types. Some were even used in leis, and also concocted into salves or creams to treat arthritis.
Hawaiian Chiles are considered ‘hot’ by any scale. The ‘heat’ or capsaicin content in chile is measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHU), with Hawaiian chiles hitting the scales from 50,000 to 100,000 SHU.
Contrast this with the hottest chile, Bhut Jolokia from India at 1,000,000 SHU, and Habanero types at 250,000 SHU. But it’s not just about heat; it’s also about sweetness and flavor, and this is where the Hawaiian chile tops the scale.
Bird Chile cousins include Tabasco, used to make a famous hot sauce, and the wild Malagueta, the most common chile in Brazil. Another cousin is the Filipino variety Siling Labuyo translated from Tagalog as ‘wild chile’, whose fruits have a blackish cast, and its leaves are fuzzy, and used in soups, such as tinola or chicken papaya.
Hawaiian Chile is late maturing and is not adapted to most short season areas of the US mainland. Plants can attain heights of 4 feet or more, bear fruit for several years, and can also be pruned back and flushed again.
Diseases and insects can affect them, but the key is to ‘know when to hold them and know when to fold them.’ As the plants age, they weaken and harden, and are more susceptible to diseases and insects. At that point, it’s prudent to start new seedlings.
Major diseases include powdery mildew fungus where a whitish powder on leaves that will cause premature leaf drop. Many races of Bacterial Leaf Spot or Xanthomonas spp. can be a problem in wet weather. Viruses, such as Tobacco Mosaic Virus and Potato Virus Y, create a mottled look to the leaves and will stunt and weaken plants, and also affect fruits.
The most serious insect is the Pepper Weevil. It lay eggs in the flower and burrows into fruits, and also cause premature fruit drop in early fruit formation. Sanitation is the key; pick up all dropped fruit and dispose of them.
Broad mites will deform newer leaves, but can be controlled with a sulfur spray.
Hawaiian Chile Peppers with Vinegar
Plant hoppers, clusters of little insects with spines on them, will congregate on stems and usually attack weak, older plants by sucking on plant juices. The mature stage of these plant hoppers are green with pointed heads.
The use of neem, an organic insecticide, can control them. In order to keep one step ahead of pests and diseases, move plants around the yard and don’t plant in the same area consecutively.
Start with good soil high in organic matter, and a pH of 6 or more. Keep plants actively growing starting with 10-30-10 or comparable fertilizer at planting. Light doses of a balanced fertilizer (1:1:1 ratio) will keep them actively growing until they flower and fruit. Chiles will be hottest when the weather is hot and when plants are under water stress. Conversely, those growing in cool wet areas will not be as hot.
You can create vintage chile pepper water since, if properly made, it can last for years if you don’t drink it up sooner. Get creative and add other flavors such as garlic or ginger to expand the taste range. A growing food trend is adding layers of flavor to hot sauce, similar to Sriracha.
University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources
Cooperative Extension Service, Molokai
Check out Glenn's The Molokai Native Hawaiian Beginning Farmer Newsletters archived at http://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/sustainag/NewFarmer/newsletters.asp