Arizona: Chasing Chiltepíns, Part 1

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By Kraig Kraft 

The Search for the Origins of Chile Peppers Starts in Arizona


As a graduate student studying crop evolution at U.C. Davis, I am focusing my work on describing the genetic changes that took place during the domestication of Capsicum annuum, a species that includes some of the most common varieties of chile peppers cultivated worldwide. In my research, I seek to answer the following question: how did the wild progenitor of C. annuum–known commonly as chiltepín (C. annuum var. glabriusculum)–become transformed into the hundreds of C. annuum chile varieties that the world has come to know and love today (including jalapeno, poblano, mirasol, New Mexican, and others)? If you are not familiar with chile lore, chiltepíns are small, fiery, round peppers that are found in Arizona, Texas and Mexico. They are the subject of many legends, stories and myths in the area, and are rightly prized in their own right as a spice, both in Mexico and the United States.

In order to unlock the history and mystery surrounding the origins of the chile peppers, a genetic comparison needs to be made between domesticated and wild chile peppers. While there are plenty of domesticated peppers available, there were previously no collections of wild chile peppers for use in this type of analysis. So, before I could begin the laboratory work of genotyping these peppers, I needed to head to Mexico to collect the wild peppers myself. Armed with a map, a great collaborator in Mexico, and half a plan, my wife, Heather, and I set off south of the border on a 10,000-mile chiltepín crusade. While the majority of the readers of this magazine would think of this as an odd, but reasonable pursuit, this trip was strictly business; we took the hunt for chiltepín very seriously!

The goal was to collect fruits, seeds and GPS coordinates from as many individual chiltepín plants as we could. Capsicum annuum var. glabriusculum is thought to have a range that goes from Arizona down to Columbia, often taking on different local names (chilpete, chile piquin, chilpiquin, chile conguito). While I didn’t have the time to go that far, I did need to make sure that we covered as much ground as we could during these weeks while the fruits were still ripe on the plant. Before our departure, I had targeted two known and characterized populations as a start: the Tumacacori Mountains of Arizona, and the Rio Sonora Valley in Mexico. After these, we would have to depend on local contacts, my Mexican collaborator in Aguascalientes, and word of mouth to find other chiltepín locations.

chiltepín Plant in the Wild Chile Botanical Area

Beginning the hunt in earnest in Tucson, we went to visit the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in order to familiarize ourselves with the environment and particular “habits” of the chiltepín (for example, its predilection towards association with hackberry and mesquite bushes) and to sample from the chiltepín population in the Wild Chile Botanical Area, located in Tumacacori Mountaints, right off of I-17. I met with a researcher studying the populations, who escorted me past white U.S. Border Patrol SUVs into the Coronado National Forest. Finding some sparsely distributed plants in the desert is not easy and I began to realize that guides were a key!

A Close-Up Shot of chiltepín Fruits

While in Tucson, we also met with a former chiltepín importer from the Sonora River Valley (Rio Sonora) who remembered an enthusiastic chiltepínero (a middleman/harvester who sells chiltepín, or used to describe the wooden mortar and pestle that serves as a chile grinder) from that area from several years back. Armed with a hand-drawn map, (with an “X” marking the spot we would find Luis selling chiltepín!), we crossed the border at Naco and several days later arrived in the town of Mazocahui to find said chiltepínero exactly where the map said he would be.
The Author Collecting chiltepíns in Mazocahui
Soon after finding Luis, we were off in search of chiltepíns. Parting away the long grass with my hands and trying to simultaneously avoid the barbed thorns of the acacias, mesquites and hackberry, Heather and I followed Luis through the dense brush up and down arroyos as he led us in search of the chiltepín amarillo, the yellow chiltepín. We were in the hills near Mazocahui, a small pueblo in the Rio Sonora valley, about 4 hours south of Bisbee, Arizona. The yellow chiltepín we were searching for is a local variant, limited to the surrounding hills, but consumers and harvesters consider the yellow color a defect and therefore it is not commercialized and the locations of the plants are rather unknown. Defect or not, I needed to collect this chile!

Yellow chiltepín

The variation in fruit color that we observed in Mazocahui hints at what type of secrets the DNA can hold. Phenotypic diversity, or the diversity of the visible plant traits does not fully reflect the genetic diversity that underlies it. Generally speaking, the wild relatives of crops harbor high levels of genetic diversity, which is very advantageous in the wild, where the plants are subject to ever-changing growing conditions. Having a pool of diverse set of genotypes ensures that some individuals will thrive and others will not, but that the population as a whole continues. The diversity that serves well in the wild is not prized in an agricultural setting– especially in today’s agriculture, where genetic uniformity is the name of the game. Who will buy your chile crop if each fruit looks different from the other or they do not all ripen at the same time?

Author Collecting from a chiltepín
Growing Beneath a Mesquite

During the process of domestication, plants undergo changes in certain traits that make them more amenable to humans and agriculture such as larger seeds, larger fruits, a compact growth habit, and so on. Selection for this suite of traits leaves a mark on the plant’s genome by the reduction of genetic diversity in the areas that code for these traits. This process is called the domestication syndrome. Through comparing the genetic diversity of wild and domesticated chile pepper, I can find the fingerprints of the domestication syndrome and trace back the origins of chile pepper.

The Entrance to Luis’ Place, with chiltepíns Drying

Our method for finding the plants was to search for people who know where the actual chiltepín plants are. More often than not, someone’s casual, “I think I know someone who…” helped us in the right direction and we always ended up connecting with someone who could help us find plants in the region.

This is exactly what happened in our next stop. We headed south towards Alamos–only because I had read the name in collection accounts of wild chiltepíns and because a contact in Hermosillo mentioned that they remembered a small shop run by the Hurtado family that sold chiltepín and cajeta, local sweets made of milk or fruit and tons of sugar. They were the best lead we had. Upon arriving in town, we parked the truck and started to canvas the local cajeta establishments. After surveying the local competition, we had tracked down Horacio Hurtado, whose fiery personality matched that of the object of our pursuit. Horacio thought that we were the craziest gringos he had seen in a while, but he would love to help us in our search. Not knowing where the chiltepín plants were, he sent us back up his supply chain in order to track them down. We drove two hours north of Alamos on a dusty one lane road to the town of San Bernardo. We found his supplier, whose day job was to manage the local Tecate distribution center. He was a middleman himself, and did not know where the plants were. Spotting his elderly neighbor, he put him into our pickup to lead our search. The elderly gentleman quickly guided us to three plants that were on the outskirts of town, but he seemed reluctant to lead us any further, saying that the rest of chiltepín were “mas alla, todavia” (still further)–a common answer we heard when we asked about the location of the plants. A bit disappointed, we began to drive back to Alamos when we happened upon a small governmental office, the National Commission for the Development of the Indigenous Peoples. On a whim, we stopped and explained our story. Talk about luck – they provided us with a guide, their doctor wanted to have us over for lunch to talk about politics and our careers and research (my wife works in public health) and we saw a chiltepín nursery project which was constructed to generate some income. All of this set off in motion by the mention of a small business in Alamos that sells chiltepín as a minor product.

Our Guide from San Bernardo Has No Idea How Fashionable
His Recycled Sandals Would Be in California.
Upon returning to Alamos, the chiltepín nursery story jogged Sr. Horacio’s memory a bit. He had remembered a story of a commercial chiltepín farm a couple of years ago, but hasn’t thought much about it. After some investigative work by Horacio and lots of driving, we found the farm. About 1,500 plants had been planted under natural canopy, all watered by drip irrigation. The farm had been started over 2 years ago, yet none of the plants reached the size of the wild plants we had seen. The leaves were wilted and there was hardly any fruit. It was likely that the plants had been stricken with Phytophthora, a fungal disease that results in root rot and the subsequent death of the plant.

You Can Make Out All the Drip Lines in This Photo,
But the Badly Wilted chiltepíns Did Not Photograph So Well.

It was a fairly common story. We had heard about similar attempts to plant chiltepíns commercially, both in Arizona and in Mazocahui, with the same results. The plant cannot be treated as a cultivated pepper and I tried to explain this to the farm’s caretaker. I suggested that they try to mimic conditions in the wild and to water the plants less. Given the demand and current market prices for chiltepíns, attempts to cultivate this pepper are not surprising. An ounce of chiltepín sells for over five dollars in the United States. In the large municipal market of Hermosillo, I bought a kilo for 500 pesos ($50).

chiltepíns Are Sold and Commercialized When Ripe (Red) and
Unripe (Green).  One Bag Was One Dollar, or 10 Pesos.

There is a great demand for these peppers, a demand that can exact its toll on the wild populations. Some careless harvesters would take down entire branches, even cutting down the plant first to then harvest the fruit. In other locations the chiltepín habitat is lost as it is plowed under for tomato fields or for housing developments. For many in Sonora, collecting chiltepíns is an important economic activity, supplementing subsistence activities. Luis said that if the rains came then there would be plenty of chiltepín to harvest and some money to pocket and save at the end of the year. The chiltepín is not just the primordial pepper but also an integral part of the social, cultural, and economic fabric and an incredibly addictive spice in its own right. When speaking with people about the chiltepín, we would often hear a popular Mexican saying, or dicho: “Si no pica, no sabe“–literally, if it doesn’t have any spice, it has no taste. With heat registering from 50,000 to 100,000 Scoville Heat Units, the chiltepín is definitely not short on spice.

Author’s Note:

For your own chiltepíns, Native Seeds/SEARCH has some for sale on their website,

Chiltepín Michelada

A michelada is a type of Mexican beer cocktail that has definite regional variations, just like many other types of Mexican food. Using chiltepín as the heat source gives the drink a nice Sonoran kick. This is really refreshing on a hot day!

1 cup Clamato or tomato juice

1 lime, quartered

Dash Worchestershire sauce

1 chiltepín pepper, ground up with your fingers

1 bottle of Mexican beer (everyone has their favorite–I like Negra Modelo or Indio)

Salt for rim of the glass

Ice (optional)

Take a pint glass and moisten the rim with one of the lime quarters. Rim the glass with salt by inverting the glass onto a plate with salt. Add ice to the glass if you would like (Mexicans drink it with ice, but Americans don’t like the idea of ice in beer). Add the Clamato, Worchestershire sauce, and ground up chiltepín. Pour the beer into the glass (you will have beer remaining) and squeeze a lime wedge into the concoction. Serve immediately and enjoy!

Yield: 1 serving

Heat Scale: Medium
For Part 2 of this story, go here.


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