India is the world's largest chili pepper producer [source: Mikulak], which should come as no surprise if you like Indian food. New Mexico is the largest domestic grower -- again no surprise, as Southwest cuisine incorporates the pepper into everything from breakfast dishes to desserts [source: Huntrods]. Today, you'll find domesticated chili peppers growing in almost every country in the world.
Chili peppers belong to the nightshade (Solanaceae) family along with potatoes, tomatoes, goji berries and eggplants. Peppers belong to the Capsicum genus, and the five domesticated species include: Capsicum annuum, Capsicum chinense, Capsicum frutescens, Capsicum baccatum and Capsicum pubescens [source: The Chile Pepper Institute]. All are tender perennials, but they're grown as annuals in colder climates. They grow on small shrub-like plants, and they're self-pollinating.
Chili peppers are easy to grow in a backyard garden or in containers as long as you can control the moisture. Chilies prefer a well-drained soil rich in organic matter -- adding compost to the soil before planting will aid in water retention and drainage. Chili peppers are picky germinators, so soak seeds in water for a day or two before planting, and set them with a starter solution to aid germination. Keep them in the warmest part of the house until they germinate.
The plants will produce higher yields when they're planted indoors and then transplanted after any chance of frost has passed -- it's best to plant chili peppers in trays approximately 10 weeks before your last frost date. Before transplanting, harden off the tender plants to acclimate them to their new environment. To harden them off, move plants outdoors each day for a week or two. At first, leave them outdoors only for a few hours in the morning, and then gradually work up to the entire day.
Fertilize the plants after the first few flowers have appeared if they look lanky or yellow. Pull weeds by hand, but be careful not to disturb any roots, and ensure the plants receive two inches of water per week throughout the growing season. When peppers are firm, harvest them by cutting the stem and leaving a little of the stem in place -- longer stems increase the pepper's shelf life [source: extension.org].
Now that you're growing your own peppers, you can use them to spice up a variety of different dishes, but enhancing cuisine isn't their only use. Did you know that chili peppers have many nonculinary uses? Keep reading to learn more.