‘Habanero’ is the generic name given to all varieties of chillies belonging to the species Capsicum chinense. Though erroneous, the term ‘Scotch Bonnet’ is also often used for these chillies. The species name ‘chinense‘ implies that they come from China, but this is not true: along with the other four domesticated species of Capsicum (C. annuum, baccatum, pubescens and frutescens) they are, in fact, New World plants. To confuse the issue, the ‘habanero’ term is also used to refer to a particular variety of chilli indigenous to the Yucatan Peninsula; this is a C. chinense and is shaped vaguely like a lantern (check out the Orange Habanero seed we sell).
Plant characteristics of habanero chillies
Morphologically, habanero plants display certain characteristics that, taken as a group, distinguish them from the other domesticated Capsicum species. Some of these characteristics are:
- Flowers grow in bunches rather than singly on a node. The number of flowers in each bunch normally ranges from 2 to 6, although we have counted as many as eight on the Dorset Naga we grow.
- In addition, flower petals are generally greenish white, but can also be either milky white or purple in some varieties. The crinkled leaves of habanero chillies tend to be wider, almost heart-shaped, compared to those of other chilli species.
- The fruit of habanero chillies usually have an annular constriction between the calyx and pedicel.
Habaneros have a reputation for being extremely hot, and many of them are. In fact, organoleptically, habaneros include the hottest chillies in the world. There are many varieties over 100,000 SHU, then there are those such as Orange Habanero, Paper Lantern and Fatali, which are all around 250,000-300,000 SHU; while the Red Savina, a habanero variety developed in the States, which at 577,000 SHU was once the Guiness World record holder. These, however, pale in comparison to the group of chillies known as the “superhots”, which are the undisputed hottest chillies in the world. These varieties, including the Bangladeshi Naga Morich, Dorset Naga, Moruga Scorpion and, of course, Carolina Reaper, measure around 1,000,000 SHU or much more.
However, despite there reputation not all habaneros, however, are extremely pungent. Some are quite a bit tamer, such as Aji Limo and Trinity, which at a ‘mere’ 35,000 and 40,000 SHU respectively, have a manageable heat level that still gives a nice bit of bite. Then, there are some varieties like Apricot and Bellaforma, known in the Caribbean as “seasoning peppers”, that at 700 SHU are almost heatless, and the Brazilian Biquinho peppers, which are have a heat level of under 100 SHU!
Culinarily, all habaneros have a distinctive flavour and aroma that has been compared to tomatoes, citrus fruit, apricots, bubble gum, green apples and root beer – take your pick, or add your own description. However they are described, it is a very distinctive, separating them from all other types of chilli, and gives an unmistakable quality to any dish to which they are added.
Habaneros in the garden
Horticulturally, habaneros are more of a challenge to grow than the generally more amenable Capsicum annuums, which include the cayennes, jalapeños and sweet bell peppers. This is not to say that they are impossibly difficult, but it does mean that they require patience and a certain degree of pampering. The seeds, for example, may be slower to germinate, while the plants certainly mature later. For the best chance of success, they should be grown in a tunnel, greenhouse or conservatory, but even then, may not produce much up north, at higher elevations or anywhere with a short growing season. To compensate for an unfavourable climate, seed should be sown earlier than usual – mid-January would be ideal – though the extra demands for light and heat may make the effort prohibitively expensive.
Why grow a habanero?
Given the challenge they present, why grow habaneros at all? For one, they are certainly worth the trouble for their unique aroma alone. A sweet chilli sauce, chutney or salsas that includes habaneros surpasses anything made with a cayenne or other C. annuum chilli. Besides, they offer a huge selection of varieties that differ in fruit types, plant habit, and heat levels, making them the perfect choice for jaded gardeners looking for something different to try. And dare we say it, the more pungent varieties are the perfect choice for heat geeks who need a regular fix of capcaicinoid.
Sea Spring Seeds specialises in habaneros, and the selection we offer includes several of our own varieties as well as several others not found anywhere else.
- Andrews, Jean. 1995. Peppers: The Domesticated Capsicums. University of Texas Press: Austin, Texas.
- Bosland, P. W., and E. J. Votova. 2000. Peppers: Vegetable and Spice Capsicums. CABI: Wallingford, Oxford.
- Dewitt, Dave, and Nancy Gerlach. 1995. The Habanero Cookbook. Ten Speed Press: Berkeley, California.