Jalapeno peppers (Capsicum annuum) are native to Mexico and were named after Xalapa, a town in Veracruz. Like all chiles, jalapenos contain capsaicin, the heat generator that distinguishes hot peppers from sweet varieties. Take care when handling hot peppers -- wear gloves and avoid touching the face. If you or children mistakenly handle jalapenos, wash affected areas with soap and warm water, followed by a vigorous rub with vegetable oil, and then a second wash.
Standard jalapeno varieties produce green peppers, about 3 to 4 inches long, with a heat factor of around 5000 Scoville units, the measure used to determine the amount of capsaicin in chiles. Jalapenos have many uses in the kitchen, providing extra flavor and spice to corn bread, sauces and Tex-Mex dishes like nachos and burritos. In addition, chipotle peppers are nothing more than smoked jalapenos. A standard jalapeno pepper plant stands between 24 and 30 inches tall and will produce mature fruit 65 to 75 days after planting. This chile grows well in hot sun and with moderate levels of water. Varieties of standard jalapenos include “Jalapeno M” and “Mucho Nacho.”
If you live in an area with cooler springs and early falls, or simply lack patience for a standard pepper to ripen, the “Early Jalapeno” is the right variety for you. The “Early Jalapeno” also grows well in coastal communities and in containers, which makes it a good choice for those with limited garden space. Producing mature fruit after only 60 days, “Early Jalapeno” plants offer 3.5-inch peppers that are hotter than the standard jalapeno, with an average Scoville rating between 7000 and 9000.
Those who like the chile flavor but find the heat of standard jalapenos unpleasant may want to try one of the several mild varieties of jalapenos. “Fooled You” looks just like a jalapeno pepper and has exactly the same flavor but none of the usual heat. Moms hesitating to feed children spicy peppers can safely add “Fooled You” jalapenos to salsas, salads and nachos without worry. The “Senorita Jalapeno” is another mild jalapeno variety, with a Scoville rating of just 400 units. Like “Fooled You,” “Senorita Jalapeno” is a good choice in Mexican dishes when authentic flavor is desired but not the heat.
Heirloom jalapeno varieties offer unusual fruit characteristics from the standard chiles. For example, the “Sweet Jalapeno” variety produces a smaller, 2-inch pepper with a mild level of heat and sweet, rather than pungent, flavor. It also has a longer growing season than standard varieties, needing up to 90 days to reach maturity. The “Purple Jalapeno” bears larger, deep purple-colored fruit that eventually turns red when fully mature. Flavor and heat level of the “Purple Jalapeno” are the same as standard varieties.