Rocoto chile

Gina Thomas displays a fiery rocoto chile in her community garden. The plant, also called the manzano or manzana chile, has pretty, star-shaped purple flowers that belie its culinary heat. (Ann Summa)

Gina Thomas remembers the day one of the Russian gardeners at the Wattles Farm community garden in Hollywood insisted on tasting a plump rocoto chile she had grown. She warned him to take only a tiny bite, but he insisted he didn’t have a problem with hot peppers. He popped the entire thing in his mouth.

A few seconds later, he flushed crimson and dashed for a hose to wash out his mouth. Two weeks later, he quit the garden.

Even in the notorious world of chile peppers, the rocoto chile (Capsicum pubescens) stands out. The pepper comes with black seeds, hairy leaves and a shape that resembles a small apple or pear. The flesh is relatively thick, like a bell pepper. It has a sweet, citrus taste at first -- but then the heat kicks in

Be warned: This pepper can be extremely hot, much like a habanero and hotter than a serrano. Dry roasting it will bring out the flavor more intensely, but the heat will lessen only if the pepper is soaked overnight. It’s best picked right before using.

Nurseries commonly sell the chile under the name rocoto, but Thomas and others call it manzana or manzano. This is one of the oldest cultivated chiles, grown from the Michoacan highlands in Mexico south to the Andes (jumping the tropics in Central America). Unlike most chiles, the rocoto does fine in colder weather and prefers partial shade to full sun.

Thomas said her pepper is from a Bolivian variety of Capsicum pubescens. “It snows there,” she said of the plant's native land, adding that she can’t believe how well it grows in L.A.

“I feed them, of course, and put in mycorrhizal fungi at the beginning,” she said, referring to the soil additive. She uses mycorrhizal fungi (available at most nurseries) for lots of plants, trees as well as vegetables, at Wattles. Thomas even uses a diluted version to start seeds on a sort of DIY seed paper. She writes the name of the seed on paper, sprinkles the seeds on the paper, soaks the paper with the solution overnight, then plants.

Once rocoto is established, treat it like a tomato and avoid over-watering. The plant can produce for 15 years, getting more than 10 feet high under good conditions and vining robustly, leading to another common name, tree chile. One lovely bonus: beautiful, six-pointed, star-shaped flowers.

Rocoto chiles start easily from seed (Peppermania or Seed Savers Exchange) or can be ordered from most nurseries.

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