by Matt Gibson
Did you know that you can grow tabasco peppers? Native to the Mexican state of Tabasco, the Tabasco pepper is a household name due to the famous hot sauce made in Avery Island, Louisiana. The compact, easy-to-grow pepper plant produces many clusters of tiny pepper pods nearly all year round, from late summer to early fall. The pepper pods start out yellow, green, or a pale yellow-green, then mature to shades of red, orange, or yellow.
During the Reconstruction period in the Southern U.S. following the Civil War, American cuisine on the whole was rather bland. In 1868, a man named Edmund McIlhenny set out to change the trend toward blandness and created a recipe to spice things up that would quickly rise in popularity. Tabasco sauce is now the most popular pepper sauce in the world and is sold in more than 195 different countries and territories.
The tabasco pepper hits the; Scoville scale at 30,000 to 50,000 Scoville heat units. It’s mega spicy compared to the popular jalapeno, which clocks in at 2,500 to 10,000 heat units and is much weaker than the tiny tabasco pepper. It’s closer to the heat range of the cayenne pepper, which is around 40,000 heat units. As you can see, there’s quite a range of heat differences between various chili pepper types.
So, want to try your hand at making your own version of Tabasco sauce? Well, the official recipe is a closely guarded and coveted secret. You can probably get pretty close after a few attempts though, and it’ll only take a handful of ingredients (red pepper, salt, and vinegar) and a little bit of patience. (McIlhenny ages their mash for the official Tabasco sauce for up to three years in white oak barrels.)
The tabasco pepper plant itself is relatively easy to care for and should do well outdoors in warm climate areas. If you live in a cold climate area, you can still have a successful harvest of tabasco peppers, as they also do very well indoors in container gardens.
This frost-tender perennial pepper plant can grow up to three feet high and wide, with a single pepper measuring, on average, one and a half or two inches long. Each little tabasco bush produces loads of peppers—way more than you need unless you are opening your own hot sauce business—in a range of hues spanning the spectrum from green to yellow, orange, and red. Often, gardeners may find their pepper plants producing a rainbow of different colors together on one plant.
Types of Tabasco Peppers
The standard tabasco pepper, known officially as capsicum frutescens, is the only variety of tabasco pepper that is commonly grown in North America. However, there are a few rare varieties of tabasco that are grown around the world. You may want to add a few of these to your pepper garden as well just so that you can compare and contrast the variety that’s out there for yourself.
Tabasco Pepper: This is the standard tabasco pepper that the world has grown to love and the main focus of this article.
Tabasco Greenleaf: This variety was created by Auburn University in Alabama specifically to emulate the original tabasco pepper and create a version that is resistant to the tobacco etch virus, which tends to plague the original cultivar to no end in certain areas in the Southern U.S. Other than being resistant to the common virus, there is not much difference from the original to be found in the Greenleaf variety.
Tabasco Hawaiian: The Hawaiian variety of tabasco pepper is exactly what its name suggests—a cross between the Hawaiian hot pepper and the tabasco pepper. These plants make one- to two-inch peppers in hues from pungent yellow to fiery orange that pack a mean punch somewhat similar in flavor to the habanero pepper.
Tabasco Short Yellow: The short yellow tabasco pepper grows on a very small pepper plant. This variety grows only one foot high and wide, producing blunt-tipped, inch-long, yellow or orange fruit. Aside from the small green flowers that the plant blossoms into during the spring, this variety can easily be mistaken for the orange pekoe plant.
Growing Conditions for Tabasco Peppers
The tabasco pepper plant is not very particular about the type of soil it needs to flourish as long as there is a good amount of organic matter present. Like most pepper plants, these guys require lots of heat from the climate, and a daily dose of bright sunlight. Full sunlight exposure is preferred, but in especially sweltering climate areas, if the leaves of the plant get scorched or start to dry up, provide some afternoon shade to take the edge off.
Tabasco pepper plants are not tolerant of drought. In fact, they require consistent levels of moisture to survive. Due mainly to their tropical origins, tabasco pepper plants also require high levels of moisture to perform their best. In addition to being sensitive to drought, these plants do not grow well in environments that get too cold. If temperatures fall to 28 degrees Fahrenheit or below, your pepper plants will start to show signs of damage. If you live in an area that is subject to cold weather, you will want to plant your tabasco peppers in containers so that you can bring them inside when the cold fronts come blowing in.
How to Plant Tabasco Peppers
If you live in the northern United States, cover your garden beds with a dark-colored mulch about a week before planting your peppers to keep the soil warm. The mulch layer will also help with moisture retention to provide an environment that is especially beneficial to young plants.
Choose a sunny location to plant your peppers or to place your pepper plant containers. If you’ll be planting in the ground, dig a hole that is two times as wide as the pot you were using for the seedling or transplant. Gently remove the pepper plant from its pot by loosening the soil and carefully tipping the plant into your hand.
Place the transplant into the soil, and position it about as deep into the ground as it was in the pot. Refill and position, gently packing in new soil around the plant. Water your transplanted tabasco pepper plant deeply to help settle the soil, and be ready to add in a bit more filler after the soil settles to fill in the area.
Care of Tabasco Peppers
Small stakes tied with rubber bands to the longer fruit-bearing stems of the tabasco pepper plant may be necessary for support, as the small plants tend to produce a massive amount of fruit.
From the second you plant them in the ground or get them settled in their containers until the end of the season when they are finished producing fruit, tabasco pepper plants require a steady but moderate amount of water. Proper drainage is key, however, as the pepper plants will not tolerate saturated roots.
Amend with lots of organic matter, and top with mulch to help improve drainage and water retention. A standard vegetable fertilizer will work fine for tabasco peppers, but be sure to avoid overfertilization, which will lead to lots of extra foliage and much less pepper production.
Harvesting and Storing Tabasco Peppers
Allowing the peppers to ripen on the plant before harvesting will enhance the flavor of your yields, but allowing this extra time will also reduce the size of your harvest. Considering how many peppers tabasco pepper plants can produce in one season, we recommend letting them ripen fully.
When removing the peppers from the plant, avoid damaging the plant or the fruit itself by using a sharp pair of garden shears. Many gardeners feel compelled to remove the fruit by tugging on the peppers themselves, but doing so can damage the plant in the process.
For the best flavor and overall quality, enjoy your tabasco peppers on the same day they were picked. You can also let them ripen for a few days on the kitchen counter. Because of the juicy quality of the tabasco pepper, we do not recommend drying them out for storing, as doing so would lose a lot of what makes tabasco peppers so tasty. Freezing the peppers is really the only way to keep their full flavor intact for future use. However, the peppers will no longer be crisp—they are softened by the freezing and thawing.
Instead of eating these incredibly hot peppers raw off the vine or freezing them and losing the texture, why not create your own version of Tabasco sauce to keep around the house or give away to friends and family as gifts?
Health Benefits of Tabasco Peppers
Like many other hot peppers, the tabasco pepper has many worthwhile health benefits. It can help in the digestive tract, promote heart health, relieve joint pain, encourage weight loss, fight against cancer, reduce psoriasis, and even soothe migraine headaches.
Pests and Diseases of Tabasco Peppers
Tabasco pepper plants typically have very few pest or disease issues—as long as the gardener provides the plants with the appropriate conditions. Try growing the greenleaf variety mentioned under “Types of Tabasco Peppers” to avoid the tobacco etch virus. Provide proper drainage to prevent issues with mold or rot, and make sure to keep pests away from your peppers.
Videos about Growing Tabasco Peppers
Check out this in-depth tutorial on how to grow tabasco peppers:
Watch this expert gardener explain how to prune your pepper plants:
Play part one of this DIY tutorial to learn how to make your own homemade fermented tabasco pepper sauce. Then continue to part two.