Chillies are members of the capsicum family - the deadly hot brothers! It is believed they originated in South America where they still grow wild today.
Christopher Columbus was one of the first Europeans to discover Chillies; wrongly calling them peppers because of their hot spicy flavour - which he thought was not unlike the black or white pepper he was accustomed to. Initially they were grown in Europe as an ornamental garden curiosity, but Spanish monks experimented with the brightly coloured fruit and discovered they were a great substitute for black peppercorns, which at the time were extremely expensive.
Today chillies are an important part of nearly every culinary culture in the world.
Chilli heat comes from the compound capsaicin, most of which is found in the white flesh and seeds. By removing the seeds you can greatly reduce the heat whilst still retaining the flavour.
Whilst I personally don't eat chillies I like to grow them for their ornamental beauty. There's an added bonus - I give them away to friends and family who enjoy the hot little fruit. Over the years I've witnessed many family members claiming to enjoy super hot chilli in curries - as their faces get redder and they sweat buckets. The benchmark in my husband's family seems to be either Kaitaia Fire or Samoa's Own Chilli Sauce - find anything hotter and you're an instant legend.
Chilli heat is rated using the Scoville Scale (developed by American chemist Wilbur Scoville in 1912) which measures the amount of capsaicin present. One part capsaicin per million corresponds to 15 SHU (Scoville Heat Units) - the bottom of the scale starts with the Bell Pepper with a rating of zero, Police Pepper Spray clocks in at 5,000 SHU, and the mind numbing Bhut Jolokia (officially the hottest chilli pepper in he world) tops out at over 1,000,000 SHU.
Chillies are relatively easy to grow - remembering that they are suited to a warm climate. They can be grown in southern areas in glass or tunnel houses but outdoors the season will be much shorter than in the temperate north.
There are loads of varieties of chilli, seeds can be purchased from: Kings Seeds, TradeMe, Yates and many specialist growers. Whatever your source make sure you clearly mark your seed trays to identify them.
Plant chilli seeds into individual pots (on a tray) filled with light compost and seed mix - I recommend plantable peat pots to eliminate root damage and do away with any transplant shock. They need to be kept warm to germinate - in a glass house or a warm room. Keep them moist (not wet) - a mister is ideal - dampen the soil and keep a plastic bag over the tray until you see the green shoots emerging. Germination times depend entirely on the variety. Most will take 1 - 3 weeks, but some of the more tricky varieties can take as long as 6 weeks. After germination move them to a light place and let them grow up to about 15cm in height.
They can be planted out once all risk of frost has gone and ground temperatures are up. It's a good idea to 'harden them off' for a few days by taking the trays outside for a few hours a day - the harsh sun can burn them and they need a little time to acclimatise. Discard any of the weaker looking plants - they'll need extra care; you're better off to put your efforts into the strong plants. Young chilli plants are very delicate and do not like being disturbed. If you have used peat pots, carefully tear out the bottom of the pot and gently make a small tear in the side - this will help the roots grow out. If you have used regular pots take extra care planting them out - handle the roots as little as possible.
Choose a part of your property which is sheltered and has full sun for at least half of the day. Plant into raised rows of light soil which has had lots of compost worked through. Space between plants will depend on the variety you are planting. At this stage the plants need nitrogen rich fertiliser to grow. A liquid fertiliser is ideal - water in regularly. Once they begin flowering switch to a potassium fertiliser to promote flower growth. You can use tomato fertiliser or make up your own organic liquid fertiliser with comfrey leaves. Another good source of potassium is sheep manure - whatever your preference use it little and often. Mulch your plants well and keep them watered - not waterlogged.
You will need bees and insects for pollination. If you don't have enough insect life you will have to do the job yourself. Simply move from flower to flower with either a tiny brush or a damp finger touching inside each of the flowers in turn.
Once the fruit has formed, leave it until it is mature but not quite ripe and pick it. This encourages the plant to flower and continuing producing more fruit.
Now all you need to do is sell the crop at the local farmers market. Or if you're up for the cost of installing a commercial kitchen (or have access to one) you could look to add value to your chillies by turning them into a range of sauces and condiments.