This Week’s Creature Feature – Red Hot Chili Peppers


Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin may not be a diehard fan of the spicy group, but he headed north for Svalbard, Norway, as part of its entourage.

No, not the funk-rock band Red Hot Chili Peppers, though that would make an interesting story of a different variety.

Cardin joined six congressional colleagues to deliver the seeds of American-grown chili peppers — the kind that spice up food, not concert stages — to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Managed and run by the Global Crop Diversity Trust, the vault collects and safeguards the seeds from more than 525,000 crop varieties. It is the largest seed collection anywhere in the world.

The U.S. delegation added to the giant collection with seeds from 537 varieties of 13 North American crops, including those hot little numbers, the chili peppers.

-Safely stashed in the doomsday vault are a diversity of seeds from New Mexico’s most well-known food group: Wenk’s Yellow Hots, a pepper that starts out yellow and hot and cools somewhat to red and medium-hot; Pico de Gallo or Rooster’s Beak, a medium-hot salsa staple; and the unpredictable San Juan Tsile, a New Mexico chili still grown by elder farmers in a Native American pueblo that can be anything from mild to medium to hot.

The chili seeds were accompanied by seeds of melons, peanuts, beans, sesame, hibiscus, squash, gourds and 448 varieties of sorghum. Though not a mainstay in the U.S., sorghum is grown around the world and is a dietary staple for 500 million people in over 30 countries. It is getting renewed attention because of its ability to withstand hot and dry conditions, newly anticipated with global climate change.

“The world is interdependent when it comes to crop diversity, the essential raw material needed for a healthy and robust food supply,” Cardin said. “As we manage the impact of climate change and other natural and man-made disasters around the world, the seed vault in Svalbard will be the safety deposit box that ensures we can keep that food supply intact.”

This new group of seeds came from the United States Department of Agriculture National Plant Germplasm System in Fort Collins, Colorado. In Norway they joined the tens of thousands of seeds sent to the vault by the Fort Collins’ group since January 2008. Not all of the seeds are American natives. The New Mexican chilies not only will be keeping company with regular Joes, but also will hob-nob with some exciting types.

“We’ve sent samples from some very familiar crop species, such as maize, soybeans and peanuts,” said Edward B. Knipling, USDA Agricultural Research Service administrator. “We’re also sending more exotic germplasm, such as seeds of the wild strawberry Fragaria iturupensis, collected from the island of Iturup on the lower flank of the Atsunupuri Volcano in far eastern Russia.”

The Norway seed vault is built deep into a remote mountainside near the North Pole as a fail-safe backup to existing international collections, many of which are threatened by wars and natural disasters — and sometimes the lack of money needed to keep the electricity on in refrigerators that store seeds. The seeds held in the vault belong to the country or institution that sent them and are available in the public domain. Crop collections around the world serve the daily needs of farmers and plant breeders in their work to find new traits that can boost yields or address problems posed by diseases, pests or shifting climate.