The chiltepin is an extremely hot chili pepper and ranks very high on the Scoville Scale – about 50,000 to 100,000 Soville units, or an eight on a scale of one to ten. The Scoville scale measures the amount of capsaicin in peppers; the amount of capsaicin in a particular plant depends on growing conditions and the Scoville scale presents a range of hotness. For comparison, Poblano peppers range from 1,000-2,500 Scoville units; Jalapeños range from 3,500 to 8.000; Serrano peppers range from 10,000-23,000; Cayenne and Tabasco peppers range from 30,000 to 50,000. Some chili enthusiasts even argue that the chiltepin is hotter than the habanero or Red Savina habanero pepper.
The chiltepin is part of the Capsicum annuum var. glabriusculum family, and is native to Arizona, Texas, Florida, New Mexico and Central and South America. In fact, chiltepin is the only wild chili native to the United States and is protected in several national parks. In addition, in 1997, Texas designated this little chili pepper the Official State Native Pepper of Texas.
The name “chiltepin” is believed to be of Aztec origin and many experts believe that the chiltepin is the original wild chili from which all other chilies have evolved. The chiltepin has small round fruit that are slightly larger than peppercorns and are about 0.8 centimeters or 0.31 inches in diameter. The fruits themselves are often bright red or green in color, and grown on a bush that can grow up to four feet tall. However, having said that, there are some reports of individual chiltepin bushes that are able to grow up to ten feet tall.
The chiltepin pepper also goes by the names of chiltepe, chile tepin, as well as the more colloquial bird’s eye or bird pepper, because they a are consumed by birds. Birds do not experience the “heat” of the hot peppers in the same way that mammals do, as they lack the chemoreceptors that make the capsaicin irritating, which make them suitable for dispersing the chiltepin seeds.
Today, this little pepper is a favorite in Tex-Mex cooking. According to Local Harvest, the chiltepin can be eaten in a variety of ways, sun-dried, added to cheese and ice creams, fermented into sauces, and pickled with wild oregano, garlic, and salt as a tabletop condiment.
The chiltepin pepper can also be used medicinally. The chiltepin, when eaten, causes the brain to release endorphins, which are natural painkillers and capsaicin is an antibacterial agent that the Pima Bajo people often used to relieve stomach disorders. The Mayo Indians mixed chiltepin leaves with alcohol to make a liniment for rheumatism. Last, but not least, the Tarahumara Indians chewed the fruit with other plants to help cure headaches.