Hampton gardener fascinated with world’s second-hottest pepper

8:58 am | August 26, 2013

Hampton resident Mark Carr enjoys hot, spicy foods, but his introduction to the world’s second-hottest pepper strained even his tolerance levels for heat.
The pepper, a native of India, is known by several names — Buht Jolokia Pepper, Naga Chili Pepper and Ghost Pepper.

Mark Carr looks at one of the Ghost Peppers growing in his Hampton garden.

Mark Carr looks at one of the Ghost Peppers growing in his Hampton garden.

“They’re all the same,” Carr said.

The Ghost Pepper once laid claim to the top spot as the world’s most fiery pepper.

“In 2012, it lost its crown to the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, a breed of habanero, as the hottest naturally grown pepper in the world,” Carr said. “It’s number two, and that ain’t bad.”

The Ghost Pepper reaches an astounding 1,032,310.00 on the Scoville scale, which is used for measuring the amount of “spice” or burn intensity that a food or product can produce.

“This pepper packs a heat 400 times hotter than Tabasco sauce,” Carr said.
Carr warned that people should use caution when handling this pepper.

“Don’t touch your eyes with the same hand you handle the pepper with,” he said. “No matter how much they water or burn — it’s nothing like getting that oil from the pepper directly in your eyes.”

The oil that gives peppers their heat is called capsaicin. Ghost peppers are loaded with it.

“This is a mean sucker,” Carr said of the Ghost Pepper.

The Ghost Pepper comes in different color varieties, including red, yellow and chocolate.

“They all have the same heat level,” he said.

Carr’s peppers are red, and their hulls are wrinkled.

“The fruit itself isn’t the source of the extreme heat,” he explained. “The capsaicin is located in the seeds and the inner lining of the hull.”

Carr isn’t a novice when it comes to hot and spicy foods.

“I have eaten foods from around the world, and my brother-in-law, Matthew Jaynes and his son, Dustin, will bring me different sauces from their travels, and each one is always hotter than the last,” Carr said.

His first time eating a Ghost Pepper left him feeling that the pepper had won the encounter. Recalling that event, Carr said he had planned to go fishing the morning he first bit into a Ghost Pepper.

“After I ate that pepper, I didn’t go fishing like I’d planned,” he said.
Instead, he spent the next hour simply trying to endure the ordeal.

“I’m sure that there are foods out there that are even hotter than anything I’ve ever tried, but this little pepper grabs you by the throat and hangs on,” Carr said. “Never has any food or condiment left me feeling so worn out after eating it.”

The pepper packs a heat that sneaks up on you.

“At first all you notice is the distinct flavor, kind of a cross between a Bell pepper and an orange,” Carr said. “But that sensation doesn’t last long. About 30 seconds after you bite into it, the heat starts and nothing else matters.”

“Nothing, not milk, not water, will quench that heat,” he said.

The heat endures for at least an hour.

Carr’s experience with the pepper left him impressed, to say the least.

“On a scale of one to 10, of hot things that I have eaten, it’s a solid 10,” Carr said.

He said he had watched videos on YouTube of people suffering through their challenge to eat this fruit, never dreaming that the same fate would be his two years after first learning of the Ghost Pepper.

That is about the time that Carr decided that he wanted to grow his own Ghost Peppers.

“I recently retired and decided to build a small green house on the hill in the back of my property,” he said. “After it was completed in early March of this year, I stocked it with vegetable and flower starts, cabbage, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, lettuce and peppers.”

He chose a variety of peppers, including bell peppers, jalapeño peppers, banana peppers and three small peppers he had never tried growing before.
“Yep, you guessed it,” he said. “They were ghost peppers.”

He obtained the pepper plants from Evergreen in Johnson City.

Carr beamed with pride as he gave a tour of his greenhouse and the three potted pepper plants growing outside it. Each plant looked more like a small shrub than the typical pepper plant.”

“At first I didn’t think they were going to grow, being a native of India,” he said.

His main worry was that the local climate would be far too mild.

“Their slow start and reluctance to produce fruit made me think that the weather conditions here in northeast Tennessee were not ideal for them,” Carr said.

But, he maintained their feeding and warmth throughout the cold snaps back in March and in April, through the chilly nights of May, until the middle of June when they had grown sturdy and the nights were warm enough for him to feel comfortable about placing them outside.

The plants had bloomed several times, but no fruit had grown.

“After I placed them in the sunlight outside the greenhouse they started producing,” Carr said. “The rate that they put on fruit is amazing.”
Carr has harvested two peppers so far.

“It looks like I’m going to have dozens to follow,” he said.

In fact, a count on Aug. 15 revealed that Carr’s three pepper plants have 418 peppers that are at least as big as a pencil eraser. “Most are quite a lot bigger,” he added.

Once Ghost Peppers are harvested, however, what good are they?

“I don’t see me putting these in a salad or stuffing them with meat and cheese, but they are fun to grow and I’m sure they will make a fine hot sauce. Who knows, maybe one hotter than I can buy here locally.”

People in India have developed a non-culinary use for this pepper.

“In India, they rub these peppers on fences to keep elephants away,” Carr said.

The capsaicin from such hot peppers is also used to produce crowd-control devices used by law enforcement agencies.

Carr encourages other spice-lovers and enthusiasts of all things hot to try their own hand at growing Ghost Peppers.

His tips on getting them to thrive are simple. Provide plenty of fish emulsion as fertilizer.

“They like the heat, but not bright sun,” Carr added.

He also advised removing the leaves from lower limbs of the plant. “That will make for a sturdy branch,” he said.

“I guess my point is, if you try growing the Naga Chili Pepper, don’t give up on it,” he said. “It may just surprise you.”

Carr didn’t give up on them, and as a result his plans are still on schedule to convert his harvest into a particularly volatile hot sauce.

He is married to Leann Carr, the new principal at Valley Forge Elementary School, who doesn’t exactly share his passion for spice.

“She says to make less hot sauce,” Carr said with a laugh.

The Carrs have a son, Benjamin, and a daughter, Victoria “Tori” Hartley.

They also have three granddaughters.

He plans to overwinter his Ghost Peppers inside his greenhouse.

“I’m going to take some clippings, too,” he said.

But he’s not content to stop at the world’s second-hottest pepper.

“I plan to try to get some Trinidad Moruga Scorpion Peppers,” he said. “I want to focus on the hotter ones.”

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