Turn down the heat and rev up the flavor. That's what vegetable breeder Kevin Crosby and associates did to the Habañero pepper at the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station in Weslaco. And they came up with a palate-pleasing pepper that won't bring tears to the eyes.

Developing a new breed of pepper isn't a quick process. In fact, it has taken years to come up with the perfect pepper for both grower and consumer. “It took us five years of selection and inbreeding,” says Crosby, “to develop and identify the best candidate.”

Both tasting and testing were important to the project as he looked for a breed that maintained its flavor while eliminating much of the heat producing compound, capsaicin. It is no surprise that the original Yucatan Habañero, often called the hottest pepper in the world, scored high on the heat scale, racking up 12,700 parts per million capsaicin. Where low marks are the winner, the fledgling variety scored only 150 parts per million, just enough to give it some zip.

The scientists started the experiment by crossing the orange-colored Yucatan Habañero, known for its exceptional taste and high pungency, with a less flavorful but heatless Bolivian variety. “We found a few of the progeny that had good flavor and low heat. We isolated them and took the best plants to backcross with the Yucatan.” Some of the breeding was done by natural self-pollination in the field and some by hand-pollination in the greenhouse.

Needed traits

Had taste been the only consideration, it would have been an easy task. “But we had to look for plants that were heat tolerant, early to mature, produced a high yield and were insect resistant, too.” That's a big order.

Five or six generations of inbreeding finally produced the pepper that Crosby feels will become a best seller in the salsa market.

Producers should also be happy with this new brand of pepper, at this point labeled the TAM Mild Habañero.

The experimental plants at the Weslaco Center, grown under drip irrigation and chemical pest control, produced significantly higher yields than the Yucatan variety. Producers can expect to harvest 10,000 to 15,000 pounds per acre. Other important advantages include significant levels of beta-carotene, when the older variety had none; fruit of the Mild Habañero matured 8 to 14 days earlier than the Yucatan; the new variety produced a more concentrated fruit set, leading to a larger first harvest. This last trait could be important since it might make it possible to harvest mechanically when expensive hand-picking is the norm.

“The Rio Grande Valley has lost a lot of jalapeño acreage to Mexico,” said Crosby. This should help take up the slack. But most important to the grower, the Habañero is a valuable crop. “It'll sell for eight to ten times more per pound than jalapeños.” Mainly it will be a fall crop since there is less insect and disease pressure and less drought and heat stress than in the spring. The more humid areas of Texas should be better suited to commercial production. It should be grown under irrigation since it is not well suited to drought or water stress.

Approved for release

The TAM Mild Habañero has been approved for release to the public and a patent is pending. It won't be long until farmers will be planting this yellow-colored pepper, and pepper lovers will be buying it at local supermarkets and enjoying it in salsa.