Forbidden Fruit

TheBiotechnology Origin of Sweet Fingerling Peppers

I came across a clamshell container of these little finger-sized peppers in a Southampton, NY produce market about five or six years ago.  I wrote about them in one of my early "ramblings"; but you don't know the rest of the story and the mystery resolved that is just so disturbing that it makes me think that the days of traditional plant breeding in the public's interest may be slowly coming to it's inevitable end.

I bought the peppers from Schmidts Marketbecause I immediately saw them as a new line to add to my seed collection.  I never saw anything like them before.  I was glad that they were in their ripe stage and the green fruit had been marketed in their mature red, orange and yellow colors.  Ideal for saving pepper seed.   When I opened them up to save the seed, I noticed that they averaged perhaps 10 seeds to a fruit and some were actually seedless.  What an odd trait I thought.

That was so many years ago, all I remember about the container is a stamp indicating that it was a product of Mexico.  Oddly, I never saw any of these peppers in the market after that.  As the years went by I paged through my extensive collection of old and new seed catalogs.  Nothing. 

Many of the seeds I collect come from interesting fruit that I see at farmstands and in the supermarket.  Some come from other collectors.  Some make it into one of my breeding projects (white pumpkins, ornamental edibles, Indian popcorn, cluster tomatoes, etc.)   I remember reading about the award winning delicata squash that was developed from a supermarket squash that caught the eye of one of the most respected breeders of Cucurbits, Henry Munger.  Whether in the field or in the grocery;  take it from experience, the eye of a vegetable breeder is always alert to some new trait that can be worked with.

But the breeder as "scientist" always wants to know the origin if only to give credit where credit is due like developing a new science theory and citing your references, whose ideas you build upon.  And so it was with the sweet fingerling peppers as I began to call them.  The first year I grew them there was some diversity.  I expected that they would be hybrids.  I was familiar with most common open pollinated breeding lines of sweet peppers.  There was not a whole lot of diversity in the second generation indicating that the parents of these little peppers were closely related.  In the following years I was able to select plants that produced red, yellow, dark orange and light orange as well as a line that produced much larger but equally sweet fruit.

Ah, the years of naive bliss, working with my rows of fingerling peppers.  The crisp, sweet crunch of their fruit, the beauty of their crayola colors.  Visitors to my garden also marveled at the unique peppers.  As I worked with the plants, their seeds and progeny,  I noted changes and variations.  When I talk to aspiring breeders, I say, "make it your own".  You start with something special and you make it your own by selecting for the characteristics that you want;  the characteristics that you need.  Sometimes it is an almost unconscious process,  you save the seeds of the plants that do best in your field.  You make it better.  Generation after generation, it becomes adapted to your cultural practices, your tastes and the ecological community it now grows in.  Such is the tradition in plant breeding. 

The sweet fingerlings were beauties that became more prized over time.   Our goal at the Long Island Seed Projectis to identify and develop vegetable varieties for the local organic community.  The fingerling peppers were looking mighty fine for introduction.  But the origin of the original seed source was still a puzzle. I had not located a seed source so I began thinking that these little peppers may be a produce company proprietary variety like "broccolini" whose owners corner the market by tightly controlling seed production, crop production and marketing. Controlling all distribution channels makes the slender miniature stalks of broccoli an item that will probably never show up in the pages of your favorite seed catalog or at your local farmstand although I've heard of imitations. It may also be since fingerlings are such frugal seed producers; from the economic view, they may be maintained in the field through several blooming cycles which may explain the production in tropical Mexico. I shared my thoughts with a friend.

Some time later I received an e-mail from my friend under the subject heading, "Bad news, Ken".  I couldn't believe the news.  I was directed to Google "Veggie Sweet".  The peppers are sold as "Pixie Sweet", "Veggie Sweet" or "Mini Sweets" by the company, Bionova Produce of Nogales, Arizona and McAllen, Texas with distribution links into California and Montreal.  Bionova acts as a holding company for ABSA (Agrobionova Mexico).  Through various corporate connections it seems indeed that the farms and labor force, packing and distribution is under one company or closely allied companies. Savia, through its subsidiaries Seminis and Bionova (ABSA) is a huge marketer of vegetable seeds as well as a produce distributor.   Seminis seeds is owned by Monsanto.  Sure enough, you won't find these little sweet peppers at your local farm.  Just like Broccolini, the Vegi-Sweet peppers are controlled from seed to grocery store product by amonopoly.  So, if you want to produce these cute peppersin your garden you have to buy the peppers and save their seed for planting- right?  Unfortunately, no.

Digging deeper into the origin of the fingerling peppers, I find that their origin comes from a single plant produced by tissue culture at a then based, New Jersey company, DNA Plant Technology but which shut down their research division in 2002 but whose intellectual property is owned by Bionova and therefore under the Seminis/Monsanto umbrella.

As I understand it, DNA Plant Technology, the biotech in it's early days had managed to turn the immature pollen grains of a pepper flower's anther (male part) placed onto a nutrient gel into embryonic pepper plants. Having only half the genetic material of normal living cells (only the male component), cells of the haploid plants were doubled using colchicine which interferes with normal division of chromosomes in the cell.  This strangely derived pepper seems to be the source of the low seed trait.  This male parent was used as one of the breeding parents of a number of experimental lines using plant material from the public USDA seedbank (GRIN).  Eventually, a plant bearing fruit of a low seeded red jalapeno shaped extra sweet pepper was bred.

"That's not what I imagined", I wrote back to my friend.    The story becomes more ominous as I research DNA Technology and their patent holdings.  DNA Technology not only holds the patent to the the technique that they used to develop Veggie Sweet, they hold the ownership patent to their "invention", Vegi-Sweet. What is claimed according to their patents is the the fruit of jalapeno shaped, very sweet, low seeded pepper;  the tissue culture technique of producing such peppers and the seed of such peppers as well as variants, hybrids, clones, etc. of those plants grown from those seeds that retain the low seed qualities of veggie sweet.  So, following the chain of acquisitions and holding companies, Monsanto owns every aspect of these little "fingerling" peppers.  When you purchase these little colorful peppers marketed by Bionova with their USDA Organic Label and perhaps the "Tinkerbell" logo when they are marketed as "Pixie Sweet" under the Disney Kids label, there is a limit to your ownership. Save the seeds?  That would be a legal issue.

For someone who believes in open access breeding and the tradition of free exchange of breeding materials this was a startling revelation about my fingerling peppers.  It is unclear what the ramifications of this kind of germplasm ownership will be in the world of plant breeding.  Working with seeds collected at farms or farmstands and at supermarkets or trading seeds with other backyard breeders and hobbyists around the world to develop your own regional varieties may be problematic since patent information is not always known or conveyed to the breeder and seed producer.

It shouldn't be that way.  You know my feeling about the "invention" and "ownership" of vegetable varieties.  PVP legislation at least allows the breeder to work with the "protected" variety as a parent in a new breeding endeavor.  But the kind of patents owned by DNA Plant Technology and Monsanto are different.  For plant breeders both professional and amateur or seed savers to now fear prosecution when trading seed or releasing a new variety development using a parent of a patented "invention" (such as Vegi-Sweet) makes the future of open access breeding precarious.

For the organic breeder, there is the additional problem of unorthodox breeding technology such as transgenic manipulation hidden within a seed we obtain from a supermarket or other unknown source.   Our legislators made the mistake of allowing this to happen many years ago.  It shouldn't have happened but it did.  Today, strings of genetic code are owned by private breeders who have claim over the genetic trait of some living thing as their own. Bits of genetic code are cut and pasted from one organism to another as flippant as using a new word processing program.  Biotechnology companies today are hot in the pursuit of ownership and manipulation of every aspect of what constitutes life.  It pains me deeply that we have strayed so far from the sanctity of life in the interest of corporate profit and we can only speculate where all this will lead.  I am not optimistic.

Hot Peppers

Crayola Cayenne Peppers

Like a kid with a new box of crayolas, when I go down to my hot pepper patch to the section where I grow the long cayenne peppers, sometimes I just want to marvel at their colors for a while. The orange variety didn't ripen until later in the season. They do all have "cayenne" in their variety description. Yellow Cayenne, Long Red Cayenne,  Long Thin Cayenne, etc.   I'm not sure whether I would classify them as variations of the same though.  They can be borne on compact or branching plants from 16 inches to over 3 feet in height but the fruit are all about 4-5" in length and narrow.  Their flavors and heat also vary. But if your definition for a cayenne is a long, thin, sometimes slightly curving hot pepper, these are cayennes.

I imagine the peppers that the Spanish and Portuguese found growing along the Cayenne River in what is now French Guiana in South America probably do not resemble our modern cayennes in spite of giving them the name we still use.

Lemon Hot

The first year this pepper is is slow to produce and ripen, wintered over indoors it produces waves of new peppers that ripen to bright yellow.  They are very hot and fruity; some swear there is a hint of citrus.  A nice flavoring pepper and a nice specimen for year round production if you have a sunny, warm place.  Perennial.

Early Dwarf Cayenne

This is Long Islands dehybridization of a selection from a mass grow out of hybrid peppers. Responses from all across the country have been enthusiastic.  One grower in Oregon marveled at the very early maturity and amazing crop of little 3" cayenne type fruit.  Plants grow only 8-12 inches tall and are always the earliest red peppers in the garden. The medium hot pepper has a fine, fruity flavor. There is still some variation here which allows for continued selection in the future.


We enjoy the beauty of the purple peppers which ripen to red and have quite a few in our collection.  Some are upright, some hang downwards;  conical fruit, round or elongate and cayenne-like.  Plant habit can be compact and dwarf or more sprawling or upright.  A few have deep purple foliage as well.  While edible, they are probably better in flower boarders or as ornamental potted plants.  We encourage crossing to achieve a better diversity to select from.

Frying and Pickling Peppers

The Best Italian Frying Peppers and Hungarian Picklers

I've been collecting Italian frying peppers since the 1970's when I began selling home grown seed out of jars at the Islip, NY Garden Show at Hidden Pond Park and receiving the treasured seed from gardeners in the local Italian Community.  The Italian Long Sweet kinds (and there are also hot variations that look identical) are excellent fryers when green or red.  They fry quickly since the flesh is fairly thin.  More important they haveflavor components that just becomes outstanding when the alchemy of fire, olive oil and ample salt works it's wonder.  Some may be a bit spicy with a tad of heat but mostly they are as mild as bell pepper but much more flavorful.  The Hungarian type peppers are interesting because they are mostly yellowish in color when immature and have been developed primarily for the pickling industry.  There are also paprika type peppers which are discussed elsewhere.

Italian Frying Peppers

Specific varieties of the European peppers primarily of Eastern Europe and Southern Europe are unfortunately disappearing as so many US varieties ceased to exist by the 1960's.  Small farmers growing and maintaining regional varieties are being replaced by corporate farms which procure seeds from multinational seed producers and open pollinated traditional varieties are being replaced by hybrids and the standardization which is happening in the European Market.  It's the same story in so much of the world!

The Virtual Pepper / has started to inventory the Italian Peppers which are most threatened bydisappearing.  There are many seed saving organizationsyou can join such as / to grow and maintain specific varieties for preservation.

These are always long, sometimes narrow kind of like the large wide hot Cayenne peppers or a bit wider like the Marconi types;  there are refined straight kinds and those wonderful curved and curled kinds too.  The plant habit can be rather dwarf with peppers hitting the ground as they grow or tall and bushy.  They tend to be among the more prolific kinds that we grow so one can expect plenty of fruit for peppers and onions and pepper and egg omelets.  They all start green and rapidly mature to bright red.

Hungarian Peppers (Great Pickling)

The Italian Peppers are productive but these peppers grown traditionally in Eastern Europe are the record holders for productivity in large sweet peppers.  The Hungarian Peppers also include Polish, Greek and Romanian kinds.  The Sweet Banana Pepper is a classic Hungarian Pepper.  These all start out yellow or light greeninstead of green and dark green and change gradually to orange and then red.  While they are sweet and mild sliced into a salad and you can fry them up if you want, their flavor lends themselves to be pickled.  Some of the best pickled peppers have been from this group.

Saving Seed

Peppers were considered to be inbreeders to a large extent but now it's been documented that insects work the flowers extensively and crossing easily occurs between open flowers of different plants within insect flight distance.  Preserving the purity of a pepper variety usually means growing only one variety in your garden or caging the plants in order to prevent insect pollen transfer.  To save viable pepper seed the fruit must be mature as possible which usually means that it turns from green to red.  We open the fruit under water washing the seed out into the water and then pourthe seed onto a screen to dry at room temperature.  The ripe pepper flesh is usually at it's sweetest and can be consumed fresh or is a good source of sliced or diced pepper to freeze or dehydrate for later use.

Sweet Fingerling Peppers

We saw these little sweet peppers imported from Mexico in a local market a few years ago and began to grow them from saved seed. The plants are short but produce a dozen or more little fruit.  There continues to be delightful variability each year that we grow them. We have quite a range of colors;  red, dark orange, light orange and yellow. We also have a recent selection of a larger sized variation of the red kind.  Each color starts out green and then changes into their mature color quickly.  

Bell Peppers are not our best performing peppers but we have been growing a mix for many years.  We had some loaded plants this year in Long Island Bell Mix;  including a traditional green to red bell that had 11 nice, full sized bell peppers. 

Another kind of bell pepper that appeared this year was Little Bell, a very productive yellow to red kind developed from Gypsy and in the 2-3 inch range.  While the peppers are smaller than conventional bells, they are free of fruit rot (phytophthora) and sun scald and tend to be very productive.  We expect great things from this little open-pollinated gem.

Suave Red and Other Peppers of Note

Suave Red (The Smooth Habanero)

Paul Bosland, director of the New Mexico Chile Institute and Eric Votava, a senior research specialist and chile breeder at New Mexico Sate University who did much of the field development of the Suave Peppers describes them as having all of the flavor of a Habanero Pepper but little of the heat.   Suave Peppers also have a citrus flavor with an orange-lemony overtone. "You'll feel a sensation of heat more in the back of your mouth and throat, as opposed to a jalapeño where you'll feel the heat on the tip of your tongue and lips," stated Eric Votava in a press release.  If the hot habanero peppers are the ying then the sweet aji dulce varieties are the yang.  Both grow on the Caribbean Islands, in Yucatan and northern South America and give the special flavors to Caribbean cuisine.  The sweet aji dulce peppers are habaneros without the heat.  We have grown several kinds of "sweet" habaneros and marketed one briefly in the 1980's.   The Suave varieties that are the result of the New Mexico State University's chile breeding program started with seeds sent from a Houston gardener, Bill Adams.  There are two Suave types:  Suave Red and Suave Orange.       

Suave Red Peppers

Suave Red Peppers

We were impressed with Suave Red.  Mild and flavorful, larger and more bell shaped than other habanero types, it lends itself to a variety of culinary uses where the warm, fragrant fruitiness is required.  Suave Red is a stable open pollinated line with high productivity. It's a great little pepper. Suave Orange performed poorly for us in 2007 and we weren't able to produce much of a seed crop.  Maybe next year. We'll work with some of the seeds of this summers meager harvest.  We're also hoping to obtain seed of a yellow aji dulce developed at Texas A&M to evaluate also.  By the way, we have quite a blend of hot habanero peppers in a variety of sizes, shapes and colors from our 2006 harvest that we're offering to experimenters.  Be careful to give the seeds enough heat during germination, above 75°F and keep them moist but with enough air movement to prevent fungus.  They often take more time to germinate that your other pepper seed and once germinated are slow growers.  Here on Long Island they really come into their own in late summer producing their largest crop just before frost.

Yasufasa and Pico de Gallo

Yasufasa Hot Pepper

Yasufasa Hot Pepper

Pico de Gallo

Pico de Gallo

Yasufasa is the Japanese pepper which is medusa-like.  We see that trait used in a number of ornamental peppers and there is that quality in the Yasufasa.  We grew a similar kind of pepper many years ago, a kind of roosters claw pepper which was circulating in the Seed Savers Exchange.  They also produced upright clusters of spicy hot peppers.  With bee crossing, that multi fruiting trait was passed on to some of out small fruited hot peppers including the diminutive Pricky-Nu and Thai Hot.  Another pepper, Pico de Gallo or Beak of the Rooster is an old time hot pepper from the southwest which puts on a great show in our Flander's Gardens.  It is the one that we prefer to dry as cayenne spice just because we like the ease of drying them and enjoy the flavor in moderation.  A winner from Native Seed Search, Pico de Gallo is a bit late but when it starts bearing, it is non-stop. Just standing over these 30" bushes and picking the ripe peppers makes my face feel hot and my nose tingle.  It has a heat that "builds".