New Mexico and Chile go hand in hand.
A bowl of Green Chile stew for most of us who reside here in the Land of Enchantment, is soul food; a magical remedio for everything! The pods, whether green or red, are a part of local life, where they’re essential ingredients, an artistic motif, and a $500 million annual industry.
If farmers or pepper-lovers in the state have any questions about their colorful crop, there’s only one place to go: the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, the only research institution in the world solely dedicated to chiles.
A visitor’s center, a shop for chile seeds and products, and a teaching garden filled with exotic peppers, the Institute features the work of the NMSU faculty who research and develop new chile varieties. The Chile Pepper Institute also hosts chile-related events and conferences.
This ongoing work dates back to New Mexico State University’s earliest days, says Dr. Paul Bosland, a plant breeder and founder of the Institute. In fact, the center’s roots go back to the school’s first horticulturist, whose influence on spicy, pepper-bearing foods and products was seminal. “There was no New Mexican chile pepper prior to Fabian Garcia,” Bosland says.
Born in Chihuahua, Mexico, in 1871, he was orphaned soon afterwards. His grandmother brought Garcia across the border to New Mexico, where they settled. When his grandmother became housekeeper to a orchardist, Garcia’s horticultural education began. After graduating in the first class of what is today’s New Mexico State University, he became the institution’s first horticulturist, responsible for developing crops for New Mexican farmers.
His influence was far-reaching. Seeing the rich but small-scale local chile culture, he embarked on a mission of “chile improvement” to spread the vegetable across the county. He wanted a more uniform, shippable pepper. Garcia also strove to make New Mexican peppers less spicy for American palates. His New Mexico No.9 pepper, which he released in 1921, laid the foundation for the canned chile and hot sauce industry.
Dr. Paul W. Bosland, Regents professor of horticulture, is popularly known as the “Chileman.” He leads the chile breeding and genetics research program at New Mexico State University. Dr. Bosland is recognized internationally as one of the foremost experts on Capsicum, and has published more than 100 scientific papers dealing with chile genetics, breeding, and germplasm evaluation. He is also the co-founder and director of the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University.
The pepper world is a little different from Garcia’s day. More than 150 pepper varieties from around the world grow in the Institute’s garden, putting to rest a lot of misinformation about peppers. For one thing, green and red chiles come from the same plant: The red ones are simply riper. For another, a chile’s kick is not in the seeds, as many people believe. Rather, it’s in the filmy tissue, which sometimes rubs off on the seeds, making them spicy.
Another myth is that vibrant ornamental peppers are poisonous. They’re not, though they aren’t specifically grown to be eaten. NMSU has released many ornamental chile varieties over the years, even in shades of electric purple. (Bosland says ornamental chile breeding is a fun pastime; plus, it’s good practice for students.)
One series of ornamental peppers is named for holidays: there’s an Easter pepper, the jester-colored “April Fool’s,” and even a green-and-brown “Earth Day.”
Though they originated in the Americas, the introduction of New World plants to the rest of the world made chile peppers an essential part of local and regional cuisines everywhere, from India to Africa! People are passionate about peppers, especially here in New Mexico where they are part and parcel of the culture and heritage.
Bosland recently spoke with NASA about growing chiles in space—the idea being that chile peppers could provide essential nutrients for astronauts on the long haul to Mars. Having helped peppers conquer the world, the Chile Pepper Institute may soon send them to the stars.
If you are thinking of trying out a few varieties in your garden this season, and you’re up for the drive, the Institute’s Annual Plant Sale happens from Monday April 8th – Wednesday April 10th at the NMSU Fabian Garcia Research Garden. ALL plants will be $4.00 at sale. For more information, please visit their site linked below!
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