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Green Thumb : Pepper Surprise

August 21, 1994|JUDITH CARTER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Carter cautiously tends a small garden in the San Gabriel Valley. and

Last spring, I had a vision of red, green and yellow bell peppers in an elegant, restaurant-like creation. The peppers were stunning, sliced into strips, lightly sauted with pea pods and baby carrots arranged on a white china plate.

Standing there in the Pasadena farmer's market, I knew I could buy a few plants and grow this rainbow of vegetables in my garden. The tags sticking out of plastic pots read Yolo Wonder Pepper, Sweet Banana Pepper and Red Bell Pepper. I bought one of each. No need to go overboard on this first attempt at living color cuisine.

Brimming with confidence, I planted, watered and waited. The plants flourished. Sets of rich green leaves covered the branches. In no time, the white blossoms set and the fruit started to form.

On two of the plants, the waxy green lumps took shape. They'd be fist-sized in a few months. I'd snap them from the plant and rush to the kitchen. Within minutes, the colorful peppers would be part of a marinated salad or a stir-fried meal.

The third plant, however, seemed to take a detour. Instead of a compact plant with large leaves, it got leggy and sprawled. The leaves were healthy but small. To my relief the strange-looking plant produced a profusion of blossoms and the fruit began to develop on schedule.

But I didn't see how any of the dozens of small fruit on this plant would ever look like the Yellow Sweet Banana Pepper pictured on the tag. In fact, they had a decidedly reddish tinge.

The "Yolo" and "Red" pepper plants, by contrast, flourished. Their branches sagged under the weight of a maturing crop of peppers.

But my colorful culinary vision was not to be, as I came to realize after several months of careful gardening.

*

I had a crop of peppers all right. Two plants yielded fleshy green bell peppers, twins of those found piled in produce bins in every grocery store.

And my renegade plant displayed an abundance of small flamed fruit whose shape and color said, "Proceed with Caution."

And I did. One morning I picked a single ripe pepper from the nonconforming plant. At the sink in the kitchen, I hesitated before biting into it. Instead, I cut a piece of flesh from it about the size of a sesame seed. With care, I placed the tiny red chunk in my mouth to sample this mysterious harvest.

In seconds, my mouth went painfully numb. My tongue and the inside of my lip had been zapped by Luke Skywalker's light saber. In no way similar to tasting salsa laced with jalapeno peppers, this sensation resembled a savage attack by a chemical agent.

Within a few hours, the cells and taste buds returned to normal. No permanent damage, thank goodness. I did, however, look in the mirror and notice a red streak stretching from the edge of my upper lip to my left nostril on the skin's surface. Something from the pepper's chemistry had migrated from the inside of my lip through to the exterior of my face. What if I'd chomped down on a handful of the little devils?

All through the growing season, the plant obeyed the Old Testament command "to be fruitful and multiply." It produced crop after crop of its little sticks of dynamite. I lost count after the total hit a hundred. Little bags of peppers went home with family, friends, friends of friends--anyone who would take them. Each bag was marked with a sticker reading, "Extremely Hot. Consume at Your Own Risk."

Long after the rest of the plants from my summer garden exhausted themselves and had been tossed on the compost pile, the fiery pepper kept on going, like the Energizer Rabbit. After weeks of cold rainy weather in the middle of winter, the tenacious plant clung to life. Two or three red peppers dangled from its bare branches, their heat warming the plant and keeping the frost at bay.

I've given up my dreams of Technicolor peppers and I'll never again believe the labels on plants. This year I just closed my eyes, picked up a dozen or so plants at random and stuck them in the ground without looking at the labels.

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