My friend John has 17 types of pepper plants in his backyard garden. They range from sweet mini bell peppers to the Carolina Reaper, the world's hottest pepper. Somewhere in the middle of the heat range is a pepper I'd never heard of before: the Chiltepin.

The Chiltepin is a tiny pepper, measuring about a quarter inch across when fully mature and ripe. That makes them something of a novelty, but what makes them even more interesting is that the Chiltepin pepper is the only pepper native to the United States.

A brief history of the Chiltepin pepper

chiltepin plant The full size of a childtepin pepper is about a quarter inch across. (Photo: Robin Shreeves)

The Chiltepin grows wild along the U.S. and Mexican borderlands and used to be abundant, according to Slow Food USA. Bottles of dried Chiltepins would have been on the tables of Native American tribes. For thousands of years, the peppers also have been used as medicine, including as a remedy for parasitic worms.

When people like my friend John grow Chiltepin peppers in their home gardens and share them with their friends, it's not just for enjoyment. It's a way of making sure the variety doesn't go extinct. Gardeners share the peppers with friends to peak their interest, then they share seeds so others can grow them in their own gardens.

Bringing the heat

Chiltepin peppers Chiltepin peppers have about 50,000 to 100,000 Scoville heat units. (Photo: Derek Markham/flickr)

Eating a Chiltepin — as long as you're not too adverse to their heat — is a lot of fun. PepperScale says the small chiles have about 50,000 to 100,000 Scoville heat units, and they can get hotter if the growing conditions are just right. They are about 23 times spicier than a jalapeño.

When I first popped the Chiltepin in my mouth, the sensation of heat came on fast and strong. It wasn't painful, but my entire mouth was alive and fiery, and there was this one moment when my entire body shimmied from the sensation. Others who were trying it had a similar experience. The hottest part lasts for only about a minute and then the heat mellows. After about 10 minutes, the sensation is gone. It's different than other peppers I've tried with that much heat. Those numbed my mouth for some time, making it difficult to enjoy other foods.

John will be using his Chiltepins along with the other peppers he's growing to make hot sauce. Slow Food says traditionally these peppers can also be eaten sun-dried, pickled, added to cheese or ice cream, and ground into salt to be sprinkled on food.

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.