2018-09-01 / Dishing

Homegrown Heat

Of the 96 plots in the Penn State Community Garden, one produces more spiciness than all the others combined.
Michele Marchetti | Photos by Matt Fern

Emily Sandall lifts a tangle of tomato vines, ushering us through the unruly arch as we continue our summer tour of the Penn State Center for Sustainability Community Garden, located below the center’s Morning Star home.

As we weave our way through the 10-by-15 plots and the nearby pollinator garden, Sandall points out several Hemaris thysbe — commonly called the hummingbird clearwing — hovering around a vibrant butterfly bush. We are transfixed by the amber-hued insect, which looks like the mutant offspring of a hummingbird and butterfly.

“It’s a great place to be an entomologist,” she says. Sandall is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Entomology specializing in dragonflies; a tattoo of a Dragonhunter (it feeds on other dragonflies) adorns her right foot. She’s also president of the garden, a living classroom for her research.

The native plants, the insects they attract and the garden they sustain are an ecosystem in balance — and a valued resource for anyone who lacks the green space or thumb to grow at home. The garden, an official Penn State student club that’s open to the wider community, features programming and workdays about a wide range of topics, from an introduction to organic gardening to fermented foods, and plenty of opportunities to trade seeds, advice and tools.

Just 10 years ago it was an open field. A professor with a passion for gardening saw something else, and transformed it into what has grown into a fertile 0.8-acre space for 96 garden plots maintained by a diverse group of gardeners. (Students must occupy half of the garden; the remaining half is open to faculty, staff and community members.)

As we pass a well-maintained plot with a plastic snake, reinforced fencing and a sturdy tomato trellis, Sandall points out how the plots reflect their owners’ personalities. The aforementioned orderly plot belongs to a professor in the Department of Architecture; the ones growing unusual varieties belong to international students hungry for the tastes of home.

Drew Wham stands in front of his garden plot with this season's squashes. For more info on the Penn State Community Garden, visit Wham stands in front of his garden plot with this season's squashes. For more info on the Penn State Community Garden, visit

The plot cultivated by Drew Wham tells a different story. It’s bursting with squashes: zucchini, crookneck squash and some prolific butternut that have been particularly resistant to an onslaught of squash bugs and thrips. But there’s a stranger living amid that squash family: a pepper plant with striking purple foliage. Wham has a freezer full of peppers from last year’s abundant harvest, but he couldn’t resist adding a pepper plant for show.

Wham’s appreciation for peppers goes back a few years. In 2013, then a grad student, he started studying the genetics of peppers — purely for fun. Through an online group called “The Hot Pepper,” he connected to people hybridizing pepper “landraces,” domesticated plants that have been raised in a specific area (in this case India) for multiple generations and are tougher than more readily accessible modern breeds. He signed up for a “seed train,” kind of like chain letters for vegetable hobbyists, and started trading.

“(The seeds) were coming from all over the world,” said Wham, a data scientist with Penn State. One of his favorites, a squat yellow hot pepper called Nebru, came from Australia. After starting his newly acquired seeds in a 75-gallon fish tank, Wham moved his peppers to the Penn State Community Garden. This is his fourth year maintaining a plot.

Among the peppers in his freezer is a white ghost pepper. Most ghost peppers ripen to red, but to produce this particular pepper, a breeder introduced a white gene to give the pepper an appearance that better suited its name. Wham has done his own cross-pollinating, a painstaking process that entails cutting a hole in a plastic Easter egg and placing it over an unopened bud to prevent the plant from being pollinated. Once the flower of that plant, the female, has opened, he crosses it with the pollen from his male plant

It’s a multi-year cross-pollination process — “you have to cross the children together to get what you’re after” — but Wham relishes the unfolding. “It’s kind of fun to have a slow-time hobby that you can enjoy over several years.”

Part of the fun has been introducing his friends to hot peppers. Not long after his first harvest, he hosted a gathering that allowed friends to sample his peppers, beginning with mildest and ending with the hottest pepper in the peck. One of his friends skipped the starter peppers and instead popped the hottest variety into his mouth. He immediately started sweating and pacing, wondering if his body would ever return to its normal climate-controlled environment.

The fire subsided, leaving a redefined concept of heat tolerance in its place. •SCM

Spicy Black Bean Dip
Drain 2 cans of black beans.
Blend beans with ¼ of a small can of tomato paste to thin.
Add ½ to 1 hot pepper, finely chopped.
Top with Mexican blend cheese and heat in microwave.

Return to top