by Matt Gibson
The mighty cayenne pepper is a chili pepper plant from South America that can grow to heights anywhere from two to four feet tall. Immature pepper pods are green, but they gradually build in spice level as they ripen, finally turning red when the peppers are ready for harvesting. Cayenne pepper pods also sometimes grow in yellow or orange shades, and cayennes usually grow to be around four to six inches in length.
The ground cayenne pepper powder is infamous as a standby in the spice rack or on grocery store shelves, so it may surprise some gardeners to learn that cayenne pepper is also available in its fresh form all year round. Cayenne has many health benefits and has been used in both medicinal and culinary capacities for thousands of years and remains useful to both fields to this day.
Though it is most widely known as and most commonly called the cayenne pepper, it is also sometimes referred to as guinea spice, cow horn peppers, aleva or bird peppers, and is commonly called red pepper once it is dried. Cayenne, along with many other spices, were brought to Europe following the discovery of the new world. Named after the french Guiana city of Cayenne, the Cayenne pepper is a member of the nightshade family.
Right around the middle of the scoville chart at up to 50,000 scoville heat units, the cayenne pepper is nowhere near the hottest pepper on the list, but it still packs a punch. The pepper is related to the milder bell pepper, and the ever-popular jalapeno (the latter is just slightly less powerful than cayenne).
Cayenne is rich in vitamins, minerals, nutrients, and antioxidants. Each serving of cayenne gives your body a healthy dose of vitamin A, as well as smaller amounts of the following: vitamin E, vitamin C, vitamin B6, Potassium, Manganese, and vitamin K. Medicinally, cayenne is most widely used to treat digestive issues, but it is also helpful treating a wide range of other ailments, including stomach ulcers, acid indigestion, blood clots, heart disease, and cancer.
Types of Cayenne Peppers
There are many different varieties of cayenne pepper for gardeners to choose from. Here are a few of our favorites:
Red Cayenne (Standard)
Produces four to six inch pods that mature from green to red.
Cayenne Long Slim
This variety produces long slender peppers that mature to a red tint in about 68 days. This variety is particularly high in vitamins C and A.
Great variety to grow for pickling. 4 inch green to red pods. Resistant to root knot nematode.
This italian native is also known as whipping tail. The long, slender pepper pods can grow from eight to ten inches in length and sharpen to a taper at the ends. Very spicy with a distinct cayenne flavor.
Long Thick Red
This cultivar produces six inch long fiery red peppers that are perfect for drying.
This variety produces long snake-like curled pods that mature from green to red.
This variety is long, fat, yellow and smooth in appearance and is one of the hotter varieties of cayenne pepper.
Ring of Fire
As its name suggests, the ring of fire cayenne is super hot. The plants are rather short but produce a lot of fruit. Ring of fire are smaller and smoother than the standard cayenne pepper.
Growing Conditions for Cayenne Peppers
The most important growing condition for cayenne peppers is a significant amount of heat. They are native to tropical and subtropical climates, so it’s no wonder that they require a long growing season and lots of full sunlight exposure.
Overly dry or overly moist soil will cause the leaves to yellow and the fruit production to slow. Take care to water regularly but do not overwater. Sufficient drainage is paramount when it comes to cayenne pepper plants.
How to Plant Cayenne Peppers
In temperate climates, the cayenne pepper plant is usually grown as an annual. In these areas, you will need to start seeds indoors and provide a temperature that is higher than 60 F, preferably right around 70 degrees. Use a light soil medium and a nice sunny location. Allow 16-20 days for seeds to sprout. Once they sprout, plant seedlings into flats two to three inches apart and gradually harden them off to the outdoors. For best results, transplant your cayenne pepper plants six to eight weeks after the seeds are sown and after all danger of frost has passed. Prepare your transplant’s final homes by amending the soil with organic materials and fertilizer but avoid a high nitrogen feed, Make sure the final locations have ample sun exposure.
If you live in an area that benefits from a long growing season and lots of sunlight, sow seeds directly into the ground 10-14 days before the last frost date. When transplanting or sowing directly, plant your pepper plants 18-24 inches apart in rows.
Care of Cayenne Peppers
Once the soil has warmed to 75 F or higher, it may be a good idea to add a layer of organic mulch to the topsoil. Doing this will help fight against invasive weeds and help the soil retain moisture without becoming soggy. You can attempt to overwinter cayenne pepper plants outdoors if you live in an area with mild winter weather, but care should be taken to protect the plants from frosts. Moving the plants indoors during especially cold winters is required and wintering your peppers indoors is recommended in most climates.
Prune your pepper plant to encourage more compact growth and fruit production. Peppers should be ready to harvest in 70-80 days.
Harvesting & Storing Cayenne Peppers
Most varieties of cayenne pepper start out green and mature to a red (most common), yellow, orange, brown, or white color. When they are ready to pick, most pods should be around four to six inches in length and relatively easy to pull off the stem. Though it only seems right and natural to pick a pepper by hand, using a sharp pair of garden shears to snip the plant causes much less damage and leaves the plant ready to sprout new growth and produce more fruit in the place of the harvest you reaped.
Unfortunately, the shelf life of your cayenne peppers are limited. One way to elongate that shelf life is drying. The most efficient method is to use a food dehydrator to dry out your peppers. If you don’t own one of those, pop the peppers in the oven on a cookie sheet and put the oven on the lowest setting and dry them out for two to three hours. Turn the peppers in the oven frequently to make sure they are drying out evenly.
If you have no oven and a bit more patience, just placing the peppers on a sunny window ledge and turning them often will eventually do the trick. Once your peppers are dry and cool, place them in an airtight container and store to add to future recipes.
Saving Cayenne Pepper Seeds
To collect cayenne pepper seeds for future planting, simply cut the pepper in half, remove the seeds, and place them on a paper towel for 24 hours. This process will dry out the seeds so they will not mildew. Once dried, place the seeds into a plastic bag and label them for future use.
Pests and Diseases
Leaf blight and fruit rot can be treated with fungicides. Powdery mildew and root rot can occur if there is a drainage problem. Aphids, mites, slugs, snails, pepper maggots, thrips, whiteflies, and root knot nematodes are all common issues with cayenne pepper. Crop rotation, hosing down your plants to knock off small pests, hand-picking snails and slugs, removing diseased or damaged leaves or stems are all-natural ways to fight garden pests without using chemicals. Treating your pepper plants with organic insecticide spray in the spring when new growth begins can go a long way towards warding off most garden pests.
Videos About Growing Cayenne Peppers
This do-it-yourself guide shows you how to grow cayenne peppers from seed:
Check out this video to learn how to grow cayenne peppers indoors for winter transplanting:
This helpful tutorial video helps you pick out the perfect containers for growing cayenne pepper plants:
This how-to video shows you how to make crushed red pepper out of your garden fresh cayenne pepper pods:
Want to Learn More About Growing Cayenne Peppers?
Gardening Know How covers Growing Cayenne Peppers
Heirloom Organics covers Guide to Growing Cayenne Peppers
SFGate Homeguides covers Grow Cayenne Peppers in a Container
Pepper Joe covers Grow Cayenne Peppers
PepperScale covers Beginner’s Guide To Growing Cayenne Pepper
That’s It covers 10 Interesting Facts About Cayenne Pepper