Matchbox Peppers

Winter 2003-2004

'Matchbox' peppers
Roberta Bailey of Fedco Seeds has dehybridized ‘Super Chili’ peppers to produce a stable, open-pollinated hot pepper called ‘Matchbox.’ English photo.

By Tim King

In late September, my glossy green ‘Matchbox’ peppers, with their heavy load of waxy red and yellow chilies, were like decorated Christmas trees.

We used to grow ‘Super Chili’ before we grew ‘Matchbox,’ because ‘Super Chili’ deserved its All America Selections award when it was released over a decade ago. Its short, dense plants never failed to yield a hundred or more fruit, whether the weather was too hot, too cold, too dry or too wet. But like all good commercial hybrids, ‘Super Chili’ was in everyone’s catalog, and then, within five years of release, became initially hard to find and then, briefly, disappeared. In recent years it has started reappearing in a few catalogs, perhaps due to popular demand or possibly to a voodoo spell; who knows?

Roberta Bailey, at Fedco Seeds in Waterville, Maine, had a similar experience. She likes the hybrid for the same reasons we do, plus a few more.

“‘Super Chili’ is a great variety,” she says. “It produces a lot of peppers, and they are very consistent in heat and yield, but, because I work for a seed company, I’m well aware that one year you have a hybrid variety that’s great, and the next year you don’t.”

Why do seed companies drop a variety, even if it’s as successful and popular as ‘Super Chili’?

“Some of the varieties get dropped because seed companies have a certain idea of what their seed line should be,” Bailey explains. “In the case of ‘Blizzard’ snow pea – which is a patented pea – one company bought another company and they just dropped it. Fedco got the last 50 pounds, kind of through the back door, and we talked to [the seed company] about buying the patent or making some kind of deal, but they said no. I guess they were just going to let it die.”

Your average gardener would, with disappointment and resignation, start looking for the next ALL NEW variety to replace ‘Blizzard.’ The gardeners at Fedco, however, have more resources and may be a bit more stubborn than your average gardener.

“We’ve been keeping ‘Blizzard’ snow pea alive for eight or 10 years, waiting for the patent to run out,” Bailey continues. “It runs out next year, and we’ve been having people multiply our seed stock. Next year we’ll have somebody grow out a couple thousand pounds.”

“We don’t like to drop varieties, and when we do, there is often an outcry from a vocal minority who like the variety,” adds CR Lawn, Bailey’s colleague and Fedco founder. “We reintroduced one variety because of that, but it still didn’t work. But with open pollinated varieties, Fedco can often connect a disappointed customer with a gardener, or company, that is still growing it.”

‘Blizzard’ will likely be available to Fedco customers in 2005, but the imminent disappearance of ‘Super Chili’ demanded a different strategy for the contumacious Fedco gardeners than did the pea. You can’t, after all, just save and grow back an F1 hybrid: You will get varietal chaos. Or will you?

Selecting for Stability

Bailey, a long time seed saver who grows pepper seed for Fedco, thought she’d strive to dehybridize ‘Super Chili.’ Actually, she’s not sure she likes the term “dehybridize.”

“In a certain sense it’s finishing the breeding work,” she says. “Making a hybrid is the first step, and then going on to do the selection and to stabilize a variety completes that work.”

So Bailey set out to liberate ‘Super Chili’ from its frozen F1 hybrid state. She began by planting back ‘Super Chili’ seeds.

“The first year I grew out 160 plants from seeds from the hybrid plants,” she explains. “It broke out into incredible combinations from the two parents. Some were red and pendulous with kind of a wrinkled hip, not unlike a ‘Hot Portugal.’ Some were erect, upright, pointed and yellow. There were all these color and shape combinations. I don’t know the actual parentage, but, based on what came from the hybrid seed, I suspect one was an upright plant similar to a ‘Super Chili,’ and then one was something pendulous and much longer and not quite as hot.”

Within the mix of diversity that first season is what Bailey calls the ‘Super Chili’ prototype – a squat, compact, many branched plant with small, dark green leaves that is about a foot a half tall with scarlet, pointed chili peppers that are half an inch at the base and maybe 2 inches long.

“For the next eight years I just kept isolating and growing out 100 or so plants each year and selecting them for the plants that were true to the ‘Super Chili’ prototype,” Bailey says. And she has not seen the varietal explosion from the hybrid seed as being incomprehensible chaos.

“The first year it was a pretty standard Mendelian formula, and about a sixteenth of them fit the prototype. I was surprised by that, because I was learning as I went.”

“Roberta has pretty much taught herself how to do this breeding work,” adds Lawn, who says that another self taught Maine breeder is working on some chard and tomato varieties. “Plant breeding requires a special person who is attentive to details, loves to play and to work with plants, doesn’t mind taking a risk.”

The Mendelian formula Bailey refers to was, of course, discovered in the mid-1800s by the playful monk and attentive gardener Gregor Mendel. The Mendelian formula of genetics established that the variables of heredity dance to an orderly and mathematical tune – a tune that can get complicated by double crosses and back crosses concocted by frisky plant breeders. But there is a logic and predictability to the process. During the years that Bailey selected from ‘Super Chili,’ she watched that formula unfold.

Just the Right Heat

“In year two, approximately an eighth of them fit the prototype,” she says. “After that a very high percentage of them looked like it, but there were other, less visible things to select for.”

One of those less visible traits she selected for was consistent heat. Heat in peppers is measured using Scoville units. The Scoville organoleptic test, developed by pharmacist Wilbur Scoville in 1912, uses the human tongue, the most sensitive taste receptor known to humans, to test for pepper heat. The test extracts the essence of a pepper variety with an alcohol infusion. Then, sweetened water is added to the extract of pepper in measured quantities until the mixture’s distinct but weak pungency is barely discernible.

An alcohol extract of a bell pepper has no discernible pungency, thus it rates zero on the Scoville scale. A jalapeño requires 3,500 units of dilution to make its pungency barely discernible. Thus its Scoville rating, which does vary somewhat, ranges from 3,500 to 4,000, according to Amal Naj, author of the book Peppers. Naj says the habañero, the fieriest pepper, the PMD* of peppers, weighs in at 300,000 Scoville units.

“‘Super Chili’ is about 40,000 to 50,000 Scoville units,” Bailey says. “I think ‘Matchbox’ is in the 40,000 range.”

For each of the eight years she selected ‘Matchbox,’ Bailey grew ‘Super Chili’ alongside it, because a visual memory of it wasn’t good enough. “With the parent right there, I could see details, like exactly how the branches angled on the ‘Super Chili.’”

My own ‘Matchbox,’ in my garden, has most of the characteristics of ‘Super Chili,’ but it differs, also. It continues to produce, for example, some yellow fruit. I happen to like that. ‘Matchbox,’ which was named to denote its heat as well as potential danger, will never be ‘Super Chili,’ but it has all the characteristics that made ‘Super Chili’ super for northern gardeners: heavy yields of hot peppers, drought and cold tolerance, disease resistance and good looks.

An Inclusive Vision

When Bailey, who grows ‘Matchbox’ seed for Fedco, released it for commercial use, she and Fedco had made a significant commitment in time and effort to the new, liberated, open-pollinated variety. The same will go for ‘Blizzard’ when it is released by Fedco. Fedco gardeners will have been saving it, and multiplying it, for nearly a decade with no financial return. That makes Fedco susceptible to some of the identical financial pressures to which Giant Seed, Inc., is sensitive.

“There are monetary reasons for discontinuing a seed, also,” Bailey notes. “The company asks, is it making enough money for them? We do that at Fedco as well. We have to look at it and say, yeah, it’s a good variety, but not enough people are buying it, and we only have so much room in the catalog. At a certain point you have to let it go. We do warn people, and sometimes we’ll carry it as a discounted seed because we have a small amount left. Sometimes we run out of seed and just decide not to pick it up again.”

The difference between Fedco and Giant Seed is that the philosophy of the gardeners who run the company, while still driven in part by economics, includes a broader and deeper vision. “When you finish a breeding project like this, you get a seed that’s available to everybody from year to year,” Bailey comments. “It’s very important that we rely on each other and not be dependent upon the whims of multinational corporations.”

Bailey is now trying to complete the breeding process of a hybridized Czechoslovakian hot pepper. It is not, as yet, yielding to the basic Mendelian formula. She is, she acknowledges, puzzled; she will, however, persist.

“As Fedco has grown, it’s become easier to support breeders like Roberta and growers raising small quantities of seed,” Lawn explains. “We can use the profits from widely sold commercial varieties to support smaller, riskier projects. We hope to get to where we produce about 20 percent of our own seed.” To that end Lawn is currently involved in a USDA-funded Sustainable Agriculture, Research and Education (SARE) project to improve the skills and knowledge of potential farmer growers and breeders.

* PMD = Peppers of Mass Destruction!

About the author: Tim King and his wife, Jan, run Maple Hill Garden in Long Prairie, Minnesota. Tim also offers an on-line course called “Certified Organic Food: What is it? Who Grows It?” at

Pepper plant drawing
Toki Oshima drawing

Cultivating Pepper Plants

Roberta Bailey begins the process of getting quality pepper seed for Fedco’s customers the fall before she plants her pepper seed crop. “Experts say to avoid nitrogen with peppers, but I don’t agree with that,” she says. I figure out in September where my peppers are going to go next year, and I top dress that area with manure in the fall. In the spring I also give them plenty of compost.” In addition to compost, Bailey adds phosphorus, in the form of rock phosphate or colloidal phosphate.

She starts her peppers about 10 weeks before setting them out in mid-May to early June. “I wait until the ground is pretty warm to set peppers out,” Bailey states. “It’s the third week in May at the earliest and sometimes as late as the beginning of June. I don’t think you gain anything by putting them in cold soil.”

Warmth is also the key for pepper seed germination. Bailey, who runs the seed germination lab at Fedco, says pepper seed favors soil in the high 70s and does just fine in soil as warm as 90 degrees.

“Sometimes, if I only have a few precious seeds, I’ll roll them up in white paper towels and keep them at 80 degrees,” she says. “When they sprout, I take them out and plant them. You have to be careful, because if you let them go too long, they start to form their cotyledons and they’ll push right through the paper towel. You want to catch them pretty quick and then put them in the potting mix. I don’t use two-ply paper towel, so the roots don’t get tangled up in the plies, but you can actually just plant the sprout with a piece of the paper towel.”

Bailey raises pepper seedlings in a variety of containers. She starts them in fairly densely planted rows in open-walled flats. When they’ve germinated, which should be in seven to 14 days, she waits until the cotyledons are well developed. Then she plants them into 50-cell flats, or she puts a dozen plants in open-walled, 12- x 10- x 5-inch-deep fish trays. “The fish trays that I use don’t have holes in the bottom, so sometimes I’ll put a little sphagnum moss in the bottom,” she elaborates. “When the roots get down there, they just go crazy. The moss gives me some assurance that I’m not drying out in the greenhouse.”

Bailey’s favorite pepper seedling transplant container, however, is a 3-inch peat pot. With these, peppers hardly receive any transplant shock.

Pepper seedlings can be shocked by over or under watering also, Bailey continues. When they just have their cotyledons and aren’t transpiring much, waterlogged potting mix can put them at risk of root rot or damping off. Letting the surface of the soil dry very briefly can prevent that. If you move your older transplants into a greenhouse, watch them closely. Pepper seedlings, particularly those in trays with cells, can dry out and die in one day of extra warm weather.

When Bailey does transplant seedlings outside, she usually transplants them through black plastic film and covers them with spun polyester fabric. Both give the heat loving peppers a little extra warmth to assure timely ripening. Row covers and plasticulture have their own set of problems however.

“Just about every year I get one tunnel with aphids,” she says. “When that happens I uncover them and leave them open for a few days. The Extension agent from our area suggested I could throw some lady bugs in there and keep it covered. Usually they just fly away, but in the tunnel they couldn’t and they’d have plenty of food.”

Bailey’s aphids have shown up late, in August. But weeds under row cover and plastic come early and grow fast. Since it’s hard to see them through the fabric, Bailey suggests checking under the fabric regularly.

– T K

Pepper drawing
Toki Oshima drawing

Saving Pepper Seeds

Harvest your pepper seeds when the fruit is dead ripe, advises Roberta Bailey, who grows pepper seed for Fedco Seeds in Waterville, Maine. Dead ripe usually means peppers that are bright red but can even mean peppers that are going mushy. “You need to do that if you want high quality, vigorous seeds,” she says.
Bailey cleans larger peppers by slicing them open and scraping the seeds out. Seeds collected that way don’t need any cleaning. If some fruit has gotten mushy, the seeds may require one rinsing.

Smaller peppers, such as ‘Thai Hot,’ have to be ground to release the seeds. Bailey uses a meat grinder or a vegetable strainer. She also has chopped the peppers coarsely in a food processor.

“You need to grind them up one way or another in a coarse grinder that won’t crush the seed,” she says. “All this has to be done with wet fruit. You can’t do it with dried fruit.”

Because both viable and immature seed from dry fruit floats when put in water, seed from dry fruits must be separated by some other method – e.g., by crushing the entire fruit, then separating the seed from the fruit pieces by screens, fans, and so on. The released capsaicin dust makes this process very hard on the nasal passages and lungs – so hard that Bailey cannot do this any longer, as she has developed an extreme sensitivity to pepper oil in her lungs.

Using fresh fruits, however, good and bad seed can be separated by putting the seeds and pulp in water: Pulp and immature seeds float; viable, mature seed sinks. You’ll need to rinse the seed as many times as it takes to pour off the pulp – possibly three to six times.

She puts pulp and seed into a bucket, fills it partially with water, and lets the pulp and immature seeds float to the top. Then she carefully pours that out until just before the good seeds on the bucket’s bottom start coming out. The bucket gets water again, the seeds are stirred to release unwanted material, and the process is repeated until only good seeds remain. Then Bailey pours the seeds into a wire strainer and gently squeezes the water out.

“Then spread them out on newspaper,” Bailey continues. “They might stick a bit, and if they’re really wet you’ll need to change the paper. Make sure to keep them out of wind and sun but in a place with good air circulation.”

Well dried seeds store best in envelopes, well marked, in glass containers. A little desiccant, either from bottles of food supplements or the kind made especially for seed saving, further protects viability. Long term storage is best in glass in the freezer.

“Keep them in glass for a couple days before freezing,” she says. “If condensation forms, dry them again before freezing the seeds. And always avoid heat when you dry seeds. Room temperature is best.”

When you take seeds out of the freezer, Bailey suggests waiting until they warm up a bit before taking them out of the container. By doing that you’ll once again avoid having the seeds take on moisture.

– T K

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