Chiltepin Pepper: Big Heat In A Tiny Package

An American native…

Chiltepin fast facts:

  • Scoville heat units (SHU): 50,000 – 100,000 SHU
  • Median heat: 75,000 SHU
  • Origin: United States
  • Capsicum species: Annuum
  • Jalapeño reference scale: 6 to 40 times hotter
  • Use: Culinary
  • Size: Approximately 1/4 to 1/2-inch long
  • Flavor: Smoky, Earthy

You may be surprised to learn that the chiltepin is actually a pepper native to the United States. In fact, it’s the only one, making it known to many above the border as “the mother of all peppers”. The chiltepin pepper has a rich history in Native American culture, and its tiny size along with its intense (but short-lived) heat has made it a unique favorite among today’s hot pepper lovers.

These are tiny peppers!

Yes, they are! In fact, they are often called bird’s eye peppers because of their tininess. They are often only a quarter-inch across, so multiple chiltepin peppers can fit on a standard-sized coin. The chili goes by many other names as well, including bird pepper, chile tepin, chiltepe, and simply tepin.

Chiltepin pepper

How hot are chiltepin peppers?

For such a small size, they pack a pretty big punch. So be careful if you ever get the chance to pop a few of these peppers in your mouth. Chiltepin ranges from 50,000 to 100,000 Scoville heat units on the pepper scale, with the chance for a bit hotter if a crop had an ideally wet growing season. This makes it equal with Thai peppers in terms of overall heat and about 23 times spicier than your standard jalapeño.

But the heat of a chiltepin is quite different than most other peppers. They zing you with hotness before calming down quickly. Compare that to a ghost pepper where the heat starts seemingly mild and boils over in intensity over time. It’s definitely a different eating experience.

Where do chiltepin chilies grow?

As mentioned, this is the one wild chili native to the United States. It’s found natively in the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico. For a long time, chiltepin plants pretty much only grew wildly, a treasure of the land. Native Americans adored this chili, and they still do. It’s a food staple and a medicine (due to the capsaicin in the plant).

Rituals were built around the wild harvesting of the chiltepin pepper – it’s something that brought communities and families together. It’s this sort of indigenous North American history and folklore that’s bringing the chiltepin back to the forefront among chilies in America.

Today, chiltepins still grow wildly. The regions of wild growth in the United States are few – totaling 15 locations. But many are all protected national park sites like Coronado National Forest. There are domesticated crops as well, but you’ll find that many packages of dried chiltepins are picked from wild harvests in these regions. If you’ve got an urge to grow some of these unique peppers for yourself, you can easily find chiltepin seeds online.

How are chiltepin typically eaten?

Sun-dried is a favorite for many people – just pop a pepper in your mouth for an intense experience. But remember that this is a hot pepper. Know what you’re getting into and be prepared for the heat. But if you’re ready, the pepper has a smokiness to it that’s quite tasty, making it very unique in the world of hot chilies.

And even though these peppers are small, people still cook with them. Chiltepins, in both their dried and fresh forms, are often mixed in with sauces and salsas. They are also ground into powders for spices. They even make their way into spicy desserts. A favorite for many is pickled chiltepins. When pickled, the chili is mixed with other spices to create one of the most unique condiments imaginable.

Where can you buy chiltepin peppers?

You won’t often find these peppers in a grocery store outside of the southwestern United States, that’s for sure. And even specialty stores may not carry them. But you’ll definitely find them online, along with chiltepin seeds, whole chilies, and other products.

With its rich North American history and surprising taste, the chiltepin is no longer a forgotten pepper. If you’re a chilihead, exploring what this pepper has to offer is an interesting way to experience both one of the earliest known peppers as well as the rich Native American history of the United States. It may be tiny, but its significance is grand.

UPDATE NOTICE: This post was updated on February 27, 2020 to include new content. It was originally published on July 16, 2013.
  • Chiltepins are my favorite pepper for chili. Using sun dried peppers, I grind half and leave half whole so that they are little heat bombs in the chili. I have a friend that swore he went blind for a few seconds when he bit into one of those the tiny atomic bombs. These peppers have an insanely hot start but the finish is faster than any other chili I’ve tried and I have tried nearly every pepper you have listed. Chiltepins rule! They’re hard to sprout but once you have a plant going they’re hard to kill.

  • I grew up about an hour outside San Antonio, Tx. Most years we would have a wild plant growing behind our barn. My grandfather used to dry hundreds of peppers, grind them and use it in a pepper shaker. He put it on everything! …great times.

  • I bought an envelope of 50 seeds for $8 online. Put 24 seeds in peat pots about March. Only two plants sprouted. It is now the middle of September and the two plants are four foot high containing hundreds of peppers. My God, what would I have done with 24 plants? I am patiently waiting for them to ripen.

  • I live in Panama. I have found chiltepins growing wild in Panama. There are many wild peppers that grow in Panama. I have not found all of them I am sure. I have found at least 4 variety’s. I am growing all these peppers in the back yard. I just call them wild peppers.

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