Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Last Chili Pequin

The last chili pequin died today. It’s a tiny shriveled up mess in the dirt. Is it OK to cry about a dumb little plant?

About this time last year, I walked down to the nursery on the corner looking for some perennial food plants I could grow. A young-ish employee with a huge bushy beard gave me a handful of chili pequins, a small pepper native to Central Texas, off a tall, delicate plant heavy with the tiny red fruit. I popped one in my mouth. The initial taste was wonderful, a little earthy, a touch citrusy, a smidge flowery. And then the heat hit. It nearly burned through my tongue, or so it felt. 13-40 times hotter than jalapeños, this pequin stuff would make some world class hot sauce. The beardy guy told me how to dry the chilis, then sprout the seeds, and grow my own mouth-scorching pepper factory. I nearly ran home, eager to get started.

The sprouting went great. 33 seeds grew tiny tendrils out their sides. I planted them in a glass lasagna dish full of black dirt and organic fertilizer. I set it on my bedroom windowsill, waking up to a view of the first plants I’ve ever grown from seed. They almost all came up, exactly 30 of them. I moved them from my bedroom to the sunny front step, excited and proud.

Aphids ate all 30 within 24 hours. Apparently last year was one of the worst years for aphids in recent memory.

Heartbroken, I brought the lasagna pan back inside and smooshed all the aphids with my finger. I watered the pan again, with little hope any of the plants would revive. None did. However, about a week later, three more tendrils poked up from the dirt. Late bloomers! Yes! Thank you genetic variability.

Not sure if selecting for the slow growers was a good idea or not, I nurtured the little guys as best I could from my shady window sill. They grew bit by bit, slower than I expected. After a few weeks, one died. Only two left now. My friend Rachel fell in love with them too, so I gave her one. It quickly died at her house; we’re not sure why. One last plant left now, and I wasn’t letting it out of my sight.

It grew ridiculously slowly, and sprouted a tiny new leaf every few weeks. Pequins are perennials after all, so maybe they just grow this slow? Then most of the leaves fell off, and a rogue aphid ate the rest before I could assassinate her too. But then it sprouted new leaves again and accelerated its growth ever so slightly. After a few months, the leaves started turning a bit white in patches, probably from lack of sun, but otherwise it seemed healthy enough. New leaves kept poking out the end. I fed it a bit of plant food from time to time, in accordance with the spotty information I could find online.

A year passed. The plant grew to 5 inches tall, with 14 leaves and no peppers, with a green stringy stalk not quite strong enough to support itself. But alive and growing. Like my plant, this was a rough year for me as well, but I was alive and growing too, and I was determined to grow my little friend now more than ever.

On Saturday, I found myself back inside the nursery down the street. I chatted with a new guy this time. The owner, a tall guy with a mustache. Nice enough fellow, and seemingly knowledgeable. A real talker. I told him about my pequin plant, the aphids, and the slow growth. He told me it just needed to be outside in good dirt and full sun, and that the aphids aren’t bad this year yet, and they wouldn’t attack the plant unless it was stressed anyway. He said if I poured a little compost tea on it, it’d grow to five, six feet by the end of the year and produce dozens, if not hundreds of chilis. I should go home and transplant my pequin to my garden straightaway and then come back for some compost tea in the next day or two. I wanted so badly to believe him. His nursery gave me the original peppers I sprouted. His plant was several feet tall last February. He must know.

Again, I hurried back home with anticipation, greedy for the piles of pequins I’d soon be mashing into my own hot sauce. I took my pequin’s pot out to the garden. I picked the best spot and cleared it of weeds. I dug a hole. I took the plant, dirt and all, out of the pot and carefully set it in the hole, not disturbing the original potted dirt at all. I watered it very gently.

Then, while crouching a few feet down planting the dozen strawberries I also bought, I watched my pequin chili plant wither and die over the next 45 minutes. I watered it again just a touch in the morning, but by morning, the leaves were crispy and the stalk a limp and thin strand lying along the ground. Just because a guy owns a nursery, is some kind of expert, doesn’t mean he knows best. I should have trusted my gut that my buddy wasn’t ready for the outdoors yet. I shouldn’t have listened to Mr. Mustachy Talker Man. I shouldn’t have been so greedy. I shouldn’t have let my little plant die.

Today I went over and took another look. I got down on my hands and knees and looked real close. I knew the plant was dead, so I was probably just looking for hope more than anything else.

You know what? I saw something. Not much of something, but something. The bottom inch of the stalk, below the crispy leaves and fried upper stalk, the bit that was half covered by dirt and sticks and leaves and other garden detritus, that small little section of stalk was still thick and green and moist. I don’t know if it died during the day today, or if it’ll still be there tomorrow, but that little guy’s been through worse before, so you just never know.

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