Ask anyone where you’re likely to find the largest variety of chile pepper plants in America and you’re sure to obtain responses in the Southwest. But the answer is New Jersey, the aptly named Garden State. Cross Country Nurseries, located in Rosemont NJ, boasts the largest variety of chile pepper plants grown by any purveyor in the country: 445 and rising. “My ultimate goal is to hit 1,000,” declares Janie Lamson, who owns the 54 acre farm with her husband Fernando Villegas.
Cross Country originally grew perennials, ornamental grasses and ferns. But in 1993 Janie’s brother handed her six packages of hot pepper seeds and asked her to grow them for him. This hot idea blossomed into their current enterprise. The perennials were eventually abandoned and now Janie and Fernando’s sole focus is the growing of chile peppers. All 445 varieties can be purchased as live plants ready for transplant into the home garden, or just the pods themselves are available from 75 of the 445 varieties. Cross Country can ship anywhere in the United States.
Cross Country’s plants are grown from seed beginning in January. They are started indoors on heating mats under lights. Three weeks later they are transferred to a greenhouse and in April they are ready for shipment.
Chile peppers are a tropical plant and very sensitive to cold. Janie warns about transplanting them too soon. An early frost can kill the plants or at the very least, stunt their growth. However, eschewing an early frost is not enough. The ground must reach a certain degree of warmth before transplanting or the pepper’s development and eventual harvest will be curtailed. Very generally speaking, this means planting in mid May for southern NJ and late May to early June for northern NJ. Interestingly, chiles transplanted in June will grow faster and provide more fruit than ones transplanted in May. The most prudent course of action is acquiring the plants at the best time to plant for your area.
Cross Country buys seeds for many of their plants. However, seeds for some chiles, particularly the more exotic ones, are not always available. To ensure a yearly supply of these chiles, a special greenhouse called the “motherhouse” is maintained. Seeds from these varieties are harvested each year and planted in January along with the purchased seeds.
There is also a special outdoor field where the aforementioned 75 varieties of chiles for harvesting are maintained. These are some of the most popular chiles for customers who wish to purchase just the pods and not the live plants. The field contains their four top sellers: Red Savina habaneros, Chocolate habaneros, Devil’s Tongue, and Fatallii.
Red Savinas are listed in the Guinness Book of World records as the hottest pepper on earth. However, a study by the University of New Mexico awards the crown to the Chocolate habanero, which derives its name from its brownish color. The Devil’s Tongue Pepper, was “discovered” growing amongst other habaneros in Pennsylvania. Its exact origins are unknown but it is clearly in the habanero family based on its taste and heat level. It is a two to two and a half inch long by one inch wide, wrinkled, yellow pepper. The Fatallii is an African variety, similar to the Devil’s tongue except somewhat longer, and also a habanero relative. These four peppers are the favorites for one very simple reason: they are the hottest. “People want hot,” explains Janie, “The milds do not sell as well.”
The number of types of chile peppers is constantly growing. The main reason for this is hybridization. Sometimes this is done by design. But frequently the actions of insects, birds and other natural forces can cause chiles to cross-pollinate. New varieties are then discovered as the aforementioned Devil’s Tongue. Janie and Fernando have also visited a number of Caribbean nations in the quest for new peppers.
Cross Country exclusively employs organic means to fertilize their plants and control for pests. Fish emulsion and seaweed are utilized as fertilizer. Fish emulsion is high in nitrogen and promotes strong growth and deep green leaf development. Seaweed is high in potassium, (beneficial for the roots), and many other micronutrients and serves as a “multivitamin.” Ladybugs, among other insects, are released in the greenhouses to eat aphids and other pests. A small manmade pond in the motherhouse assists in maintaining high humidity that repels spider mites.
Cross Country Nurseries is located at PO Box 170, 199 Kingwood-Locktown Road, Rosemont NJ 08556. They can be reached at 908-996-4646 or at their website at www.chileplants.com. The website contains beautiful color photos of all of their peppers. They are open to the public April through June. Shipping of live plants occurs during the same months, and fresh pepper pods in September.