Different varieties of chilli like topping in different degrees. Some just don’t seem to understand what to do and others get it right first time.
A good example of a slow learner is Poblano. At the initial topping, Poblano was topped carefully to leave four true leaves. All seemed well. However, each of the plants has grown just one (or maybe two) new branch from the leaf node. This has then become the main growing stem again. It’s like the Auxin only made it down as far as that node and stopped there. Result: minimal branching, one main growing point AGAIN.
The best in class when it comes to branching out has got to be the Chinense group. Again, they were topped to leave four true leaves. This was difficult as they were tightly packed. Every single node has sprouted a new branch. Result: lush, dense plants with plenty of growing branches to bear lots of fruit.
Espelette seems to know what to do with itself once its top has been whipped off. The difference is obvious looking at plants that have and haven’t been topped. Well done Espelette. We salute you.
Overall, topping HAS resulted in the chilli plants growing extra branches, lower down, before they form the Y. It has delayed flower formation and therefore flower drop or fruit developing too soon. Sometimes chillies forget to produce more flowers if they have an early fruit or two.
The Demon Scissor Snipper has been back. A second topping has occurred. Any plant that had not yet formed a Y has had its new branches topped too. Mwwwhhhhhaaaaarrr!
Why? In aid of even bushier plants, with more flowers, less chance of branch snapping and plants that topple over. And of course, many more chillies!
The last few weeks have been busy. Spring has finally sprung in Hampshire. The garden is waking up and our Family and other Animals are demanding attention. The chillies have been quietly doing their thing on the window sill. After a sunshine-tastic Easter Bank Holiday it is time for a progress report.
Roots were starting to appear at the bottom of the smaller pots. A sure sign it is time to pot on. Not too big too soon or the plants will spend all their time growing new roots to fill the massive pot and forget to grow up top.
The same mix of soil was used. Seemed to work well for the first round of pots so why change it? No need for staking any plants yet. This time last year the Jalapeños and Big Bombs were already needing a small stake to stop them flopping over. Topping has helped the plant stability.
86 plants potted on. Very satisfying.
As a result of topping…
The plants have responded well to their growing tip being pinched out. Some plants were showing signs of branching anyway but others, less natural spreaders, have really bunched up and sent out side shoots galore. Excellent work. Although none of the topped plants have flower buds they all have many, many more growth points, rather than one leading spike.
A comparison of topped and not topped plants show significant differences (significant to us, anyway) Topping has slowed flower development, created more leaves, bushier and shorter plants. The non-topped plants are destined to be sold at a Summer Fete. They are tall, flowering plants with big leaves. They should do well in their new homes.
The late-to-be-sown Rocoto plants have just been topped. They are rapid growers and have a good number of true leaves. Snip snip snip. Time to bush out.
Last year the solo Rocoto plant we grew was a real pain in the greenhouse. Sprawling and brittle, it decided it needed other plants to support it. This made moving them around almost impossible. It was definitely worth the hassle (as is clear from the last minute seed planting) but there is nothing wrong with attempting to keep them more compact this year.
Moving up to the greenhouse…
The plants been up in our heated, bubble wrapped greenhouse for nearly a week and the results are good. All round light, controlled temperature and gentle air flow has really allowed the plants to flourish. We’ve been trying to keep the temperature above 15 degrees at night, so far no problem, despite outdoor temperatures hovering around zero. Temperatures during the day are less than perfect. It can often be well over 35 degrees in there, with window and door open. We’ve attempted some strategic placing of the hotter types on the South side and the ones that are less tolerant of high temperatures on the North side or somewhat under the shelving. Generally all the plants have added a couple of extra sets of leaves and are looking tip top.
There are a selection of plants that will be gifted to friends and family. These are not necessarily going to be potted on or placed in prime location though, just kept ticking along. They will be left in their first pots or potted on into odds and sods pots. A good chance to clear out any unwanted pots. These are in the cold frame, covered over at night and will be fleeced if a cheeky frost makes a surprise appearance.
All the Trinidad Perfume plants are showing good growth but have odd looking central new leaves. Pale and crinkly. Investigations and results will follow.
Time to consider the feeding regime again. Should we increase the Chilli Focus mix to 10mls per litre? Should we go to twice a week or stick with once a week? Is an Epsom Salt spray needed again? And what about banana tea?
Our chilli plants are progressing nicely. Lighting has been au natural so they are not the deep, dark, dense green & glossy beasts that some people have lurking beneath their grow lights. Maybe Father Christmas will bring us lights this year, who knows. Until such time, we have our lovely honest plants that have germinated and grown in a UK Winter. As a result, they have slightly petite leaves, longer stem spaces between pairs of leaves and a grassier green colour.
It is time to top.
What does that mean?
You might call topping, pinching out, top pruning or even FIMming (Google that for an explanation). The Chelsea Chop works on the same idea too. They are all pretty much the same thing. Snipping off the growing shoot at the top of an immature chilli plant, before it has split to a Y or produce flower buds.
You can tell if the plants might benefit from a topping if they are leggy. Look at the space between each set of true leaves. Is it bigger than you would like? Does the plant bend a little too much? Are you worried you might snap the plant when you move it around? If yes to these questions then your plant is ready to take its top off.
Why? What are the benefits:
More fruit: the removal of the main apex growing shoot sends the key plant growth hormone, auxin, down the stem to encourage many more growing shoots to develop further down the plant. The result is more growing branches, more flowers and ultimately more fruit. Yay! Better order that chest freezer now.
More compact plants: naturally grown plants can be a little leggy at this time of the year. This can be dealt with in a few ways. When repotting they can be buried up to their seed leaves, encouraging more roots to grow and reducing the height of the plant. Topping also deals with a plant that is undesirably tall early in the season. Don’t be scared now, it will all work out fine.
More stable plants: another benefit to reducing the height of the plant and sending it out sideways will become apparent later the season. Some chilli plants (jalapeño, guajilo, padron to name a few) could reach up to 2 metres tall. By encouraging a bushy style plant you will avoid plants that can be blown over in the wind, or knocked over if they are dry. Single tall stems can be easily snapped, especially ones that have larger fruit. Multi stems not so much. All that hard work could end up for nothing. You might find there is less need for staking too.
Are there any negative effects?
Delayed flowers and fruit: so of course, by topping the lead growth shoot you are delaying the onset of flowers and fruit, essentially checking the plant. If you have a short growing season and are only interested in a smallish crop then go right ahead, let the chilli plant grow as it wants, with little interference, and you’ll be harvesting your chillies a week or two before us toppers. Although, you might find that those early flowers do not hang around to set fruit as the plant is too immature to support them.
Less side shoots: Hmm, maybe. If you have a chilli plant that likes to bush out and make side shoots all on its own then cutting off some of the plant will leave less leaf joins to sprout new shoots. Don’t top if you have all the space in the world. A side shoot variety (padron for example) will just get on with things itself. As long as you are prepared to stake and support as the fruit sets and enlarges.
Does this work for every type of chilli?
The topping principal totally works on any chilli. But, with naturally small, bushy plants, or plants that send out side shoots you might choose not to bother. Our Chinense types are half the height of the larger Annuums at the moment. No need to do anything with them just yet, maybe not at all. They take a lot longer to get on with things. Bactuum types are often spindly and branched anyway. Topping could help keep them more sturdy.
How to top?
Well now, if you are a You Tube kinda chillihead then settle down to watch Veronica Flores explain all things topping. You’ll be rushing off for your tiny scissors in no time at all.
Wait until the plant has between 3-5 sets of true leaves.
Find a nice sharp pair of scissors.
Take a deep breath.
Snip out the main growing shoot. Leaving one or two pairs of true leaves, depending on how brave you are.
Sit back and watch the side shoots grow.
The side shoots can also be topped later on in the season if they are leggy.
Five days later and our plants are already showing sign of side shoots.
Do be warned: topping is addictive.
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A south facing windowsill in March is no longer enough for the chillies in our lives. The leaves are a little limey in colour (especially the chinense types) and some of the plants just a bit leggy (especially the jalapeño and poblano). Without rushing for LED lighting and pinching out the tops just yet what can be done?
The key questions are would they do better in a warmer place? How can they get the most natural light? Do they need feeding more?
A bit of background information to give you a better idea of what we’re dealing with.
The chilli seedlings are currently in the house. You would hope that the house is a good temperature for the chillies to thrive. Monitoring with a maximum and minimum thermometer reveals that during the day, in particular cloudy days, the temperature can drop to as low as 17 degrees. At night an overnight low of…the same. Our house is pretty consistent.
In comparison, the heated greenhouse temperature has been all over the place. Sometimes 13 degrees at night, sometimes down to 5 degrees. It was zero outside but still, rather chilly for chillies! Sometimes 35 during the day. We have the smaller chilli plants in the greenhouse already. Although they are growing, they are no where near as advanced as the house ones. This is really the only other location we could consider putting the house plants. Perhaps quite yet.
Ideal chilli growing temperature range is 27-31 degrees. Well that is a hell of a lot hotter than these little babies have been getting. Time to raise our game and temperature. Off to turn the central heating on and research heating cables.
Our two south facing windowsills can take five trays of twelve plants each but we have fifteen trays. The trays are on rotation to allow a fair share of being closest to the window and are lined up on a big table as close to the light as possible. It is March and we receive 12 hours of sunlight on a good day. However, on a double drip rainy day it can be really dingy. Clearly not enough light for those at the back of the class.
And then feed…
The plants are currently given a weak solution of Chilli Focus (5ml per litre) The bottle says they can be given 10mls per litre as the plants mature…perhaps it is time? Or maybe a nitrogen feed would be more suitable at this point and then switch back to the potash feed when flowers start to form. Or maybe Epsom salts might do the trick? Yes, a quick Google reveals that no harm can come from an Epsom salt spraying and a lot of good could be done.
Epsom salts are magnesium sulphate. Good for boosting chlorophyll production, uptake of nutrients and the ability to produce flowers and fruit. Best administered in a foliar spray it seems you can do no wrong with a misting of Espom Salts Wonder Spray (1 tsp per litre of warm water to aid dissolving).
The weather is turning from deluge of rain & 50 mph winds to cold and clear with some night time frosts. Until those frosts have passed we will have to stick it out in the house. It’s just not warm enough in the greenhouse.
Keeping the central heating on in the house during the coldest days. The plants already come in off the window sills when the curtains are drawn.
Moving the taller anuum type chillies nearer the windows to avoid any further legginess. The others will still be in the light. Turn the plants to encourage strong stems.
An Espom salt spray will hopefully give a chlorophyll boost. Maybe that will compensate for the lack of prime window spots. We’ll continue with the Chilli Focus for now but…stop the press…a new click hole of banana compost has opened up. We get through a lot of bananas so this could be a good way to use the skins. We’ll report back.
Time for an update on the 20 varieties of chilli we have growing here at The Birdhouse in sunny and blustery Hampshire, England.
A quick reminder of the seedlings’ journey so far…
The seeds were soaked in tea and left to chit in a humid propagator. Once the seeds had rooted & shooted they were put into small newspaper pots. They were kept fed and watered until their roots peeked out the bottom of the pots. Potted on into 9cm square pots. No science behind the square pot choice. We just have lots of them. They fit & balance well on our windowsill trays. And there we are, the story so far.
Chilli varieties with varying numbers of true leaves. Showing days since germination…
And if we do it all again next year?
We have not used heaters, reflectors, heated pads, lights or anything else too specialist…yet. Next year we might consider providing extra lighting once the seeds are germinated and potted up. A quick social media peek at specialist chillihead groups soon reveal the types of plant that can be grown under specialist UV lights with a little extra heat. Short, dark, glossy beasts that are poised to surge up when the frosts are finally over. Something to aim for.
Here we go with the science behind why our mouths seem on fire when we eat chillies…
Individual chilli varieties, plants, pods and even parts of pods all contain varying amounts of capsaicinoids. These are the compounds responsible for the hot sensation when we eat chillies. Capsaicin is the main capsaicinoid found in chillies, although there are others. Inside a chilli fruit, the highest concentration of capsaicinoids can be found in the join between the membrane lining of the chilli wall and the whitish pith where the seeds are attached. This is where the capsaicin glands lurk, waiting to ambush an unsuspecting cook.
The capsaicinoid compounds share a significant quality. They are able to enter and alter the TRPV1 ion channel in mammals. They lock the receptors open until the capsaicinoid molecules have moved on. TRPV1 receptors are responsible for detection and regulation of body temperature over 42 degrees. The receptors can be found at many points within mammals bodies, and are particularly sensitive where there are mucus membranes. When we eat chillies, it is the TRPV1 receptors in our mouth that respond with the oh so familiar burning sensation. Capsaicinoids trick our body into thinking we have touched something dangerously hot.
Is it just chillies, or do other plants produce capsaicinoids?
There are some real bad ass plants out there. Resin Spurge (Euphorbia poissonii) for example produces a compound that is up to 1,000 times more potent than capsaicin. So pungent that even in tiny amounts it renders the recipient seriously neurologically damaged, and can be fatal. Luckily for chilliheads, capsaicin levels found naturally in chillies do not cause physical damage, just a physical response.
Another member of the Capsaicinoid Gang can be found in ginger: gingerol. It measures lower on the Scoville Scale than capsaicin which explains the milder seeming heat of ginger. It fact gingerol becomes even milder if cooked long or at a high temperature. Be warned though, as a gentle warming or drying of ginger can double the spiciness of gingerol.
Foodies will also be familiar with the aromatic heat of peppercorns. This is caused by a capsaicinoid called piperine. Perhaps it was the early love of piperine that allowed the capsaicin rich chillies to steal our hearts when they were finally unleashed on the old world.
There are also other capsaicnoids to be found in chilli peppers. Nonivamide is one of these. It is synthesised and used in the food industry to add pungency and heat. It is cheaper to do this than extract and use naturally occurring nonivamide or capsaicin. It is also the main constituent of pepper spray.
Why have capsaicinoids developed in plants?
Most people seem to agree that it is in the interest of deterring mammals. Plants do not want to be eaten by animals that will destroy their seeds. Simple but are there other reasons too?
What about animals? Do they use capsaicinoids?
It turns out that the animals have got the hang of making chemical triggers for the TRPV1 receptors too. Certain tarantulas of West Africa, specifically the Earth Tiger tarantula, make a toxin that works on the TRPV1 receptor causing pain in the form of intense heat.
Obviously Mrs Earth Tiger doesn’t want to be chewed up and spat out by a furry mammal. Not so good for future generations of baby Earth Tigers. Chemical weapons at the ready then.
The use of capsaicin as a deterrent is not only employed by plants but by used by humans as well. The aforementioned pepper spray is a good example of this. And, a quick look at an image taken from the Codex Mendoza, created in the mid 1500s, reveals a child being held over a fire of burning chillies. The child’s eyes are streaming. It is perhaps a punishment: a deterrent for some undesirable behaviour. Y’owch, tough love but they’ve gotta learn!
But back to the chilli plant’s use of capsaicin as a deterrent…
The biological motivation of chilli plants is a little more complex. Many plants are interested in animals eating their fruit as a manner of seed dispersal. But chilli plants are producing a chemical that actively deters mammals. So what is wrong with mammals? Ah, they have grinding molars. Poor little chilli seeds are unlikely to survive after a good grinding. Most mammals will avoid plants which make their mouth burn so the chilli seeds are safe to be eaten by non-mammals.
It turns out that birds are just the insensitive little blighters required… insensitive to capsaicinoids that is. It makes sense that chilli plants don’t deter their feathered friends as birds’ feeding habits are exactly exactly what a chilli plant needs. Bird sees brightly coloured, yummy looking fruit. Bird eats fruit. Seeds pass through digestive system pretty much intact. Bird flies off. Seed deposited with a healthy dose of Mother Nature’s own fertiliser. Job’s a good’un.
That sounds like the right reason for capsaicinoids to be in chillies.
Ah, but animals are not the only consumer of chillies. Microbial level interference is just as likely to stop the chances of a chilli plant producing viable seed as hungry animals are. Fungi and bacteria in particular are able to negatively affect chilli plants’ growth. Which leads to the revelation of another super power of capsaicinoids. They are highly anti-microbial.
It has been theorised and widely accepted that wild chilli plants survive to produce ripe seed pods when their pods have a higher dose of capsaicin lurking within. This capsaicin presence seems to deter certain fungus from taking up residence in the plants and affecting their crop.
Other capsaicinoids deter different fungi in a range of ways. Some act on fungi on the roots, others on fungi on the leaves. The percentage and balance of capsaicinoids present in individual species of chillies correlates with exposure to specific fungus. So Ecuadorian rainforest chillies have different capsaicinoid levels to Andes Mountain rocoto chillies as a result of the microbes present in their respective environments.
Chillies are super anti-bacterial. Capsaicin inhibits the growth and survival of about 75% of bacteria out there in the world. Once the chilli plant has reached maturity it has a high enough concentration of capsaicinoids to inhibit bacterial attack. Bang, and the germ is GONE!
The anti-microbial quality of capsaicinoids goes a long way to explain why chilli is a very popular traditional ingredient in hot countries. Back in the days before fridges, the anti-bac effect of chillies would have stopped food from spoiling. Recipes would have included chilli as a preservative and preventative to food poisoning. Good recipes are always passed down. Bad recipes might have resulted in no one surviving to pass recipes down to.
It’s beginning to look like a lot like chillies and their capsaicinoid compounds are rather well equipped to take over the world with their tailor-made toxic toolkit. Oh, too late, they already have.
With such potency to be found in these compounds there must a be a way for modern humans to utilise the power of chilli.
Initially, when the portuguese explorers brought chillies home they were appropriated by monks and grown as a medicinal herb. What on earth did they use them for and what could they be useful for these days? Listed below are a few medical and health claims, not substantiated, just an indication of the impact capsaicin could have in our future:
Consumption of chilli before a meal can significantly reduce calorie intake. Capsaicin has an effect on the ‘fullness’ receptors in our stomach.
Topical application of capsaicin loaded creams can alleviate arthritic pain, shingles neuralgia and even HIV neuropathy. The Aztec folk used it as a pain reliever for toothache. The capsaicin is said to deplete the quantity of Substance P (one of the body’s pain messengers).
Capsaicin has been touted as a dietary control for cholesterol. Targeting the bad cholesterol that clogs up arteries whilst leaving alone the good stuff that clears them.
Psoriasis lesions that itch can be alleviated by the application of capsaicin creams. This pain relief is temporary but improves with regular use.
Eating a normal amount of chilli in a meal can reduce the quantity of insulin required by your body to deal with the intake of sugars.
The heat pain from a chilli can distract the body from other pain, e.g. migraine.
Capsaicin is also heralded as an anti-cancer hero. It can cause cancerous cells to go into defence mode and self-destruct in their efforts. Thus causing a halt in growing tumours.
Increased blood flow and thinning qualities as a result of eating chillies, all mean that heart disease and stroke are less likely.
Generally, people who eat chillies are 13% less likely to die before those who don’t eat chillies. Perhaps 100% true.
So why did humans develop a taste for chillies, despite the burn?
Maybe as a survival technique. It has been indicated that in the past, if you lived in an area where you are at risk of microbial infection and ultimately death, increasing the use of chillies reduced fatality. Communities who use more chilli in their cooking survived to tell the tale.
And then there is the chilli high. The body’s endorphin rush response to the attack of chillies. The thrill seekers and risk takers will recognise similarities in the rollercoaster of emotions a hot chilli hit brings compared to that of their thrill of choice. We feel good that we survived the chilli onslaught. We’ve survived to eat another mouthful of the hot stuff. It feels good to be alive!
Here we are on a blustery March Saturday afternoon in Hampshire. After an erratic Winter, the chickens have come into full lay at The Birdhouse. Huzzah!
Normally that means eight eggs every day. But the neighbours are away and this results in the luxury of their eggs too. So twelve eggs a day. That’s a lot of eggs for our family. And although we really like eggs, what to do with them all?
Obviously this week egg meals have been on the menu: poached eggs for a scummy and nutritious school breakfast; scrambled eggs with fried mushrooms for lunch; spicy cheese and tomato omelettes for dinner. A quick banana loaf to utilise up some browning bananas brings down the egg count. But still the eggs keep a coming. Now we are into egg specialist recipe. What to opt for? Pancakes? Curd? Mousse? Yorkshire puddings? How about all of the above?
Today is curd and mousse day. A quick check of the fruit bowl reveals four limes: two mottled & mature bad boys and two fresh glowing newbies. The former perfect for flavoursome and plentiful juice, the latter good for zingy zest and vibrance of colour. And, of course, this is a house that lets not a day pass by without an element of chilli infuse our cooking. So, Lime & Chilli Curd, let’s get cooking!
The recipe is super simple, it makes 1 x 500ml jar of curd:
juice of four limes
zest of two limes
2 tsp of chilli flakes
The citrus juice and zest can be replaced with any acidic liquid and complimentary flavours. Strawberries & mint, champagne & passionfruit, bergamot orange & bay. Lemon and cardamon. The options are endless and tantalising.
Place the sugar, juice, eggs and butter in a heavy bottomed pan and very gently heat the mix.
Stir frequently with a wooden spoon. Do not let it cook too quickly or you will have lime flavoured scrambled egg on your hands. Expect to spend 15 minutes standing at the stove, stirring. Don’t be tempted to turn the heat up. It just takes time. You are looking for a thickened liquid, cloudy with a subtle sort of whitish foam forming as it heats.
Then strain through a sieve. Some curd recipes use only yolk, this avoids the blobby white bits but doesn’t use the whole egg. Not the aim here. Straining produces a smooth, silky curd.
Add the lime zest and chilli flakes whilst still warm to allow the flavours to integrate.
Jar up and you’re done. The curd will keep for a week in the fridge.
And what will we be doing with our curd? Why serving it under a pillow of chocolate mousse of course. And the recipe for the mousse? Simple again…
60g dark chocolate (at least 70%)
2 tsp sugar
Melt the chocolate in a bain marie. Set aside to cool slightly.
Separate the eggs. Careful to make sure no yolk goes into the whites. This would stop the whites from whisking properly.
Whisk the whites to stiff peaks. Use an electric beater. It takes about a minute.
Add the sugar, whisk again. Just a quick blast with the beater.
Add the yolks to the chocolate. Stir in with a spatula. The mix will thicken but don’t worry, it will loosen when you add the whites,
Add a third of the egg whites and whisk in. Good old beater again.
Now carefully fold the rest of the whites into the mix. Use a spatula and make sure there are no white streaks. Classic folding figure of eight, Don’t lose that air now. At this stage you could add a few chilli sprinkles if you want-mmmm!
Spoon into your chosen vessel and refrigerate for a couple of hours.
So there we have it, a whole lot of egg gone to a good place and with the added bonus of using chillies too.