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SWEET pep­pers can ripen well – even in dre­ich old Scot­land. Fifty years ago you would have been hard pressed to find peo­ple grow­ing cap­sicums here but they’ve now be­come nearly as pop­u­lar as their cousins, chillis, and breed­ers have re­sponded by pro­duc­ing them in many shapes, colours and sizes.

These Cen­tral Amer­i­can plants need as much heat and light as pos­si­ble. I look back fondly to the sum­mer of 1984, when my pep­pers wal­lowed lux­u­ri­ously in the sun and re­warded me with the sweet­est crop ever. But even now, look­ing at my New Ace pep­per’s five large fruits and five small grow­ing ones, I know they’ll ac­quit them­selves well.

There may not be nightly tem­per­a­tures of 20C fol­lowed by 30C dur­ing the day, but the green­house should stay tol­er­a­bly warm. Dur­ing the sum­mer it pro­vides all the light the plants re­quire, as long as the glass is kept clean and there are no toma­toes nearby; in early Septem­ber I’ll plug in my grow­lights to com­pen­sate for fall­ing lev­els.

That’s be­cause these plants would nat­u­rally de­velop over a longer grow­ing sea­son than ours, and although breed­ers have de­vel­oped faster-grow­ing va­ri­eties I be­lieve you’ll get bet­ter re­sults by choos­ing ones that pro­duce smaller fruits. Just as bush toma­toes ripen more quickly than beef­steaks, small pep­pers such as Joker re­ward you with an early dish of sweet, tasty pep­pers which look like chillis but don’t burn the roof of your palate.

There’s a fine choice of colours in these smaller spec­i­mens, in­clud­ing the or­ange fruited Mo­hawk, tiny Swee­t­o­nia Or­ange and pur­ple Te­quila. And you get many more fruits than on a large plant.

We are nat­u­rally at­tracted to red fruits so peo­ple used to think larger and red­der pep­pers would be much sweeter than those of smaller va­ri­eties, but a trial con­ducted by the RHS last year de­bunked that the­ory.

The RHS se­lected sweet pep­per va­ri­eties that had re­ceived their Award of Gar­den Merit and, among other things, tested them for sweetness. They used the Brix scale, a sys­tem fa­mil­iar to ev­ery home brewer as it mea­sures the vol­ume of sol­u­ble sugar in liq­uid. For booze, Brix mea­sures the po­ten­tial strength of the liq­uid, but for pep­pers it as­sesses sweetness, flavour and nu­tri­tional value. On a scale of four to 12, the higher the score the bet­ter.

The test showed that size was no guide to qual­ity. One of the larger va­ri­eties, Mo­nanta, scored a rea­son­able seven, but much less than the smaller, top-scor­ing Hamik at 10. Hamik went on to break the rule on colour, pro­duc­ing or­ange fruits, not the ex­pected red. And, to make mat­ters worse, yel­low-fruited Corno di Gaillo scored nine while Bianco got the dunce’s cap with six, de­spite be­ing red.

Whether the fi­nal colour of a pep­per is red, yel­low, or­ange or brown, it will need eth­yl­ene as well as au­tumn sun to ripen and sweeten. Eth­yl­ene acts as a hor­mone in plants to stim­u­late the ripen­ing process. As a fruit ripens, it emits eth­yl­ene which, in turn, stim­u­lates ripen­ing in nearby plants. When one tomato ripens, oth­ers fol­low.

For­tu­nately, with all these lus­cious toma­toes, the green­house is awash with eth­yl­ene this month and next, which fairly boosts pep­pers into ripen­ing. Ex­per­i­ments have shown that high lev­els of eth­yl­ene can speed ripen­ing of pep­pers by up to a week.

And eth­yl­ene may not be the only ripen­ing trig­ger. I’ve some­times seen a pep­per dam­aged by an epi­curean slug turn red more quickly than its neigh­bours. Does a threat­ened fruit rush to pre­ma­ture seed ripen­ing?

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