Tiny but mighty chiltepin peppers, also known as chile tepin, are rare, scorching hot peppers native to the Americas. They grow wild in the canyons and low desert along the border between northern Mexico and the southwestern United States.
Indigenous communities have been harvesting chiltepins for medicinal, ceremonial, and culinary uses for thousands of years. And today, the pepper is a protected species in some US national parks due to its historical and cultural significance.
Read on to learn all about this special pepper, including how to grow it in your garden at home.
Characteristics of the Chiltepin Pepper
The chiltepin pepper, whose botanical name is Capsicum annum var. glabriusculum, is a pepper variety closely related to jalapeños and bell peppers.
But chiltepins have many unique traits that set them apart from other common peppers.
Chiltepins are small, round peppers that start out green and turn red as they ripen. They grow to roughly a quarter-inch in diameter, or about the size of a pea. The pepper’s color when ripe ranges from orange-red to bright red.
This pepper plant is a small perennial shrub that typically grows to about three feet tall. The plants have thin stems and leaves, with smooth green foliage and tiny white flowers.
Spice Level and Flavor
A little pinch of chiltepin is all you need to bring your favorite southwestern and Mexican dishes to life.
Scoville Heat Rating
The Scoville scale measures the amount of capsaicin in spicy peppers and tells you how much heat you can expect from each hot chili cultivar.
The little chiltepin pepper ranges from 50,000 to 100,000 Scoville Heat Units (SHU). For context, jalapeños are at the low end of this scale, ranging from 3,000 to 8,000 SHU, and Habaneros range from 100,000 to 350,000.
But unlike many other hot peppers, chiltepins have a fast burn. That means their heat dissipates quickly, so you can enjoy your next bite without a lingering burn from the last one.
Taste of the Chiltepin Pepper
These peppers are spice-forward but have an earthy, slightly smoky taste.
And smoking dried chiltepins only enhances their natural flavors, making for an even more balanced and savory bite.
Chiltepin peppers are packed with vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and soluble fiber. They also have some antifungal and antibacterial properties, earning them a reputation as a natural remedy for fighting infections.
Indigenous tribes in Mexico and the southwestern U.S. have long used both chiltepin peppers and their leaves to treat various ailments, including headaches and stomach aches.
How to Use Chiltepin Peppers
Kick up the heat in your favorite dishes with a dash of chiltepin chili flakes or hot sauce. Making these condiments yourself is easier than you might think and a great way to preserve your pepper harvest.
Make Chiltepin Chili Flakes
Making your own crushed chili pepper flakes starts with drying out your fresh chiltepins.
In dry climates, you can sun-dry peppers by hanging them from a string in direct sunlight. Or speed up the process by dehydrating them in the oven. Dried chiltepins will be ready to work with when their texture is very brittle and crumbles easily.
Use a molcajete to crush chiltepin peppers the traditional way. Or load your dried chilies into a pepper mill for an easy way to grind chiltepin flakes over your favorite Mexican and southwestern meals.
Make Your Own Hot Sauce
You can also make your own chiltepin hot sauce, perfect for spicing up tacos, breakfast eggs, and more.
Try this recipe for Homemade Hot Sauce that features chiltepins as the star ingredient. Or swap out the other peppers and sub in the chiltepins in any of your other favorite hot sauce recipes.
Other Uses for the Chiltepin Pepper
You can also harvest unripe chiltepin peppers when they’re green and pickle them with your favorite herbs and spices.
New to pickling? Consider a simple pickling kit that will set you up with everything you need to get started.
PSA: Handle Hot Peppers Safely
However you’re preparing your chiltepins, take steps to protect yourself from the natural oils that will be released as soon as you crush or cut into them.
Wearing kitchen gloves while working with hot peppers is a best practice to keep your hands safe from capsaicin burn. Avoid touching your eyes. And always wash your hands thoroughly after handling spicy peppers — even if you wore gloves when making direct contact with them.
How to Grow Chiltepin Peppers
Grown from seed, the pepper plants can take up to six months or longer to start producing fruit. But a healthy, mature chiltepin can live for decades.
Keep reading to learn how to grow chiltepin peppers in your garden.
Where Do Chiltepin Peppers Grow?
Wild chiltepin peppers grow prolifically in low desert areas of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and northern Mexico. But pepper plants can thrive in all kinds of warm climates as long as you keep their conditions just right.
Growing Chiltepin Peppers at Home
Thinking about growing your own chiltepin peppers? Here’s a quick overview of how to get started.
Chiltepin pepper shrubs prefer well-draining, silty or sandy soil.
In the wild, chiltepins like to grow under the shade of other native plants and trees. Plant your peppers in partial shade to imitate their natural environment.
Planting Chiltepin Peppers
It’s best to get your chiltepin pepper seedlings started indoors in the spring or early summer, so you can keep them warm.
For a detailed, step-by-step guide to starting peppers from seed, check out our post on How to Plant Peppers.
When to Harvest
A chiltepin pepper is ready to harvest when once it develops its signature rich red color.
Where to Buy Chiltepin Pepper Seeds
Planting chiltepin peppers from seed is a great option for home gardeners since it’s rare to find starter plants for this cultivar in nurseries.
True Leaf Market has chiltepin pepper seeds you can order online today.
Get Ready to Try a Chiltepin Pepper
Now you know all about chiltepin peppers. All that’s left to do is rally your spice warrior courage and give them a try!
And visit our Pepper Plants page for answers to all your burning questions about growing and enjoying your own peppers at home.