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Chile History

New Mexico Chile History

According to many, cultivated chile peppers were introduced into what is now the United States by Captain General Juan de Onate, the founder of Santa Fe, in 1609. They may have been introduced to the Pueblo Indians by the Antonio Espejo Expedition of 1582 – 1583. According to one of the members of the expedition, Baltasar Obregon, “They have not chile, but the natives were given some seed to plant.”

By 1601, Chiles were not on the list of Indian crops, according to colonist Francisco de Valverde. De Valverde who complained in his writings that mice were a pest that ate chile pods off the plants in the field. Following the Spanish settlement of the area in the 1600’s by Juan de Onate,  the cultivation of chile peppers exploded, and soon they were grown all over New Mexico. It is likely that many different varieties were cultivated, including early forms of jalapeños, serranos, anchos, and pasillas. But one variety adapted particularly well to New Mexico was a long green chile that turned red in the fall. Formerly called “Anaheim” because of its transfer to the more settled California around 1900, the New Mexican chiles were cultivated for hundreds of years in the region with such dedication that several distinct varieties developed. These varieties, or “land races” called Chimayo and espanola, had adapted to the particular environment and are still planted today in the same fields they were grown in centuries ago; they constitute a small but distinct part of the tons of pods produced each year in New Mexico.

New Mexico chiles are pod types of the annum species. The plant has mostly a compact habit with an intermediate number of stems, and grows between twenty and thirty inches high. The leaves are ovate, medium green, fairly smooth, and about three inches long and two inches wide. The flower corollas are white with no spots. The pods are pendant, elongate, bluntly pointed, and measure between two and twelve inches. They are dark green, maturing to various shades of red. Some ornamentals are yellow or brown. Their heat ranges from quite mild to medium. More than 40,000 acres of New Mexican chiles are under cultivation in New Mexico, California, Arizona, and Texas. Their growing period is about eighty days, and each plant produces between ten and twenty pods, depending on variety and cultural techniques.