As I walked up to the motte of small Live Oaks, I noticed numerous bright red dots in the understory vegetation. The dots were berries of some kind. They appeared to be evenly spaced across a swath of two-foot-high bright green plants. Coming closer, I saw that the red dots were the tiny fruits of a native pepper plant: the Chile Petin.
I had, of course, seen Chile Petines before. But never had I seen such a copious display of fruits! It must have been a very good year for these native chiles. And so many of the berries were ripe and ready for harvest! So, I harvested some.
I collected about a cup of the miniature peppers in a colander. Picking was slow-going, even though the peppers were plentiful in this motte. Chile Petines are only about a quarter of an inch long. And they are spaced just far enough apart on the plants that you can only pick one at a time. It took me about an hour to harvest a few hundred fruits.
Chile Petin is low-growing pepper found from the American Southwest, all the way through Mexico, Central America and South America to the bases of the Andes. It is also called Chile Pequin, Chile Piquin, Chiltepin, Bird Pepper, Amash, (in Chiapas) and Maax’ik (in the Yucatan). It is widely used as a condiment/spice, and almost everywhere, it has its own common name. Chile Pequin seems to be the most popular common name. It is thought to originate from “pequeño” meaning “small” in Spanish.
Although small, the peppers pack a wallop. I put one on my tongue as I harvested the berries. I rolled it around in my mouth, not biting it. In a few moments, I felt a slight burn on my tongue. It was not unpleasant. Then I bit down on the pepper. Immediately, things got hotter! As in most chiles, the hot substance is in the tissue closely surrounding the seeds. This tissue, aptly called the “placenta,” supports and nourishes the seeds as they develop. You could say it protects the seeds, too! After biting the pepper, my nose started running, and the burning intensified. I had to spit it out. The seeds were now on the ground and ready to grow into new Chile Petin plants.
The substance that produces the burn is a chemical compound called capsaicin. The concentration of capsaicin reflects the “hotness” of the pepper. In 1912, a pharmacist named Wilbur Scoville devised a scale of pungency as a measure of the hotness of peppers. It was called the Scoville Organoleptic Test and is now known as the Scoville Heat Scale. It is based on human taste buds: He diluted an extract of a given pepper with sugar water until it no longer tasted hot to the test subjects. If one cup of extract required 5,000 cups of water to no longer taste hot, the pepper was given a 5,000 Scoville Heat Units (SHU) rating. This number is on the order of the pungency of a Jalapeño Pepper, which has a rating of 2,500 to 8,000 SHU. For comparison, a Bell Pepper has no capsaicin and is given an SHU of 0. One of the hottest peppers known, the Ghost Pepper, has an SHU of around 1,000,000. Pure capsaicin is approximately 15 times as hot at 15 million!
So, what is the SHU of our Chile Petin? Wikipedia rates it at 30,000 to 60,000 Scoville Units, at least 5 to 8 times hotter than a Jalapeño! No wonder I had to spit it out. But, used judiciously, Chile Petines add a wonderful flavor to foods. The taste is described as “citrusy, smoky (if dried with wood smoke), and nutty,” as well as very hot. As a test, I mashed up one whole Petin with half an avocado and a sprinkle of salt. The resulting mash was delicious and not too hot! The key is to use Chile Petines sparingly.
Because so many of us like the taste of these tiny native peppers, the State of Texas declared the Chile Petin our “State Native Pepper” in 1997. And it is not only people that like the chile. Birds do, too. The name Bird Pepper indicates that many bird species, lacking capsaicin receptors, feast on Chile Petines. Our State Bird, the Northern Mockingbird, is especially fond of the Texas State Pepper. That’s fitting. Isn’t it?