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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

SocietyJuly 22, 2023

Beware the volcanically hot chillies growing in Auckland’s Winter Gardens

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Why on earth is the hottest chilli in the world growing within picking reach of the public? Madeleine Holden investigates.

“Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!”

Eveline Perl, gardener at Auckland’s Winter Garden, is mimicking her colleague after he ate one of the gnarled red chillies growing in the glasshouse for temperate plants. She flaps her hands in front of her mouth, as if desperately trying to cool it after a burn. 

“I’m not going to try them,” she tells me flatly. “It’s just stupid to eat chillies that hot.”

I’m chatting to Perl after strolling around the temperate glasshouse and noticing alarming signs printed on plant markers. “Extreme Levels of Capsaicin,” they warn, underneath the universal hazard sign. “DO NOT TOUCH OR EAT THIS FRUIT.” Red and white caution tape weaves through the pots. Other handwritten signs, clearly intended for the gardeners, read: “DANGER: wear gloves, avoid eye contact.”

Code red levels of capsaicin in Auckland’s Winter Garden (photo: Madeleine Holden)

Hopelessly intrigued, I Google what capsaicin is (the chemical compound that makes chillies burn in our mouths) and then immediately wonder why rows of plants radiating toxic levels of the stuff are within grabbing reach of the public in this family-friendly Auckland Council garden.

I shoulder tap Perl, a fit, middle-aged woman with long, silver hair loading orchids off the back of a ute, and ask her to tell me about the radioactive plants. “Carolina Reaper,” she says. I scurry behind her while she carries the orchids to the hot house. “Hottest chilli in the world.” 

Perl says there is some debate about this online, but when I Google the Scoville scale – the definitive measure of pepper spiciness sure enough, Carolina Reaper is right near the top, underneath only pure capsaicin and pepper spray (!!), and above another variety ominously dubbed the Trinidad Scorpion. 

According to various sources around the web, the Carolina Reaper is 15 times hotter than a habanero and was created by crossing a “really nastily hot” Caribbean La Soufriere pepper with a Naga from Pakistan. Eating one feels like having molten lava in your mouth and may cause your ears to start ringing, your stomach to cramp and your anus to burn. It’ll “mess up your day” and is “not worth it.” 

The culprit, in broad daylight (Photo: Madeleine Holden)

But the damage doesn’t last, Perl assures me. “It’s not actually hazardous. I mean, it’ll damage your taste buds for a while, but that’ll be that.”

So have any members of the public ignored the signs and braved the Reaper?

“I’m sure some have been picked, but I haven’t noticed anyone going” again, the frantic, hand-flapping gestureAhhh, oh my god, what did I do!? In the past we’ve had ghost chillies, they’re quite hot, but not as hot as these, and they used to go missing. Sometimes you’d see someone pick it.” 

I ask Perl to walk me through the reasoning process behind planting nuclear-strength chillies in a sedate public garden, dangling over sniffing dogs and grasping toddlers. 

She chuckles. “We always have chillies. A lot of different varieties.” There aren’t as many flowers during winter, she explains, so chillies provide a burst of colour in their place. “We always have the Bishop’s crown, the one with the nice little bells, but for the rest, we just pick something. This year they thought Carolina Reaper would be interesting.”

Interesting indeed. Take care out there, Auckland. 

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