Posted May 11, 2023
Dear Plant Geek, is there an Arizona native chile?
Yes, the chiltepin! It is our only local native chili and it’s native in a variety of habitats like in riparian areas, mesquite bosques, and rocky foothills.
Looking more like a small round berry than a chile, the Chiltepin – pronounced “chill tuh peen” – is one of the oldest of the very few remaining wild chiles still available. Considered by many to be the mother of all chiles, it is the only indigenous pepper to the U.S., still growing on shrubs under nurse plants in canyons throughout southern Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and northern Mexico.
Its name comes from the Aztec Nahuatl language – spoken when Cortés arrived and still used today by approximately 1 ½ million people in Mexico – of chiltecpin, “chilli” + “tecpintl”, meaning “flea chile”. The pea-sized scarlet berries are an irresistible snack to the wild birds who are credited with their spread from South America all the way up to the southern U.S. and why they are also known as “bird peppers” in the Southwest.
Today this unique little chile goes by many names – chile tepin, chile del monte, chillipiquin, a’al kokoli (in O’odham), chiltepictl (in Nahuatl), amash (in Mayan), chilillo, chilpaya, huarahuao, and piquen.
On first taste, the heat is intense and unapologetic, coming on fast and strong – the flavor introduces itself later. The heat quickly passes, leaving you with a fruity, mineral flavor.
Grow in full to part sun, with moderate to regular water, will suffer some frost damage most winters if not covered but most often recovers quickly. The more sun you provide the more fruits you will get but also the more you will need to water. Birds also love the fruits and spread them naturally, lending this and many similar peppers to be called “bird pepper”.
From the Spadefoot Nursery in Tucson