Some gardeners were hotter than a pepper sprout this year

Published 11:36 am Thursday, September 28, 2023

Avid gardeners spend much of the winter studying their seed packets and imagining that what they started in a warm and secluded spot in their home would emerge in their garden come late spring, looking as green and robust as the professionally photographed image on the cover.

For avid growers of tomatoes, beans, squash, cukes and most other fruits and vegetables, life in the garden was pretty good, or as good as possible given the annual battle with pests and uncontrollable weather. Meanwhile, a storm was brewing in the peppers section of gardens.

Many of the pepper aficionados found their spicy corner of the garden knocked into a cocked hat.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

The jalapeño plants grown from seed and transplanted in the garden often turned out not to be a jalapeño plant at all, but rather a pepper species of many different colors and tastes because of a mixup by seed companies at the national level. Gardeners nationwide were harvesting, but never sowed the seeds of, Hungarian wax, green bell, habañero, sweet banana peppers, and the list goes on.

And the mixup included not only seed packets but also plant starts from big box stores and local garden centers leading some to believe that some mischief had occurred as a result of pranksters switching plant labels. 

And just like that, we had “Jalapeñogate” or just plain “Peppergate.”

Eating hot peppers is, in my humble opinion, more of a regional thing than say tomatoes. Here in the South, most people like their food on the bland side as opposed to “kicking it up a notch.” The same can be said for other parts of the nation. New England food is about as lively as burnt toast while Southwesterners truly like it hot, probably because the jalapeño originated in Mexico and made its way into Texas and California and on into Arkansas and Oklahoma. 

My mother’s garden in Arkansas was always about the size of Rhode Island, with a sizable portion devoted to jalapeños. She canned them, fried them, sliced them, garnished lots of dishes with them and tossed chopped-up bits into just about every pot of beans she cooked.

So I can imagine she would have been fit to be tied if what she planted in expectation of getting those bright green peppers instead produced bright yellow banana peppers or bland bell peppers. If you know much about peppers, you might say the jalapeño would be the life of the party and the banana pepper, a wallflower.

That’s the surprise thousands of gardeners got this season, leaving some of them, as Johnny Cash famously sang, “hotter than a pepper sprout.”

The seed companies were as transparent as a bucket of garden soil. One company said that some jalapeño seed packets had been mislabeled, but vendors have said little about how it happened.

It is, as a punny gardener might say, rooted in mystery.

Larry McDermott is a local retired farmer/journalist. Reach him at hardscrabblehollow@gmail.com