How to Grow Zapotec Jalapenos (and Where to Get Seeds)

The Zapotec jalapeno is an old heirloom variety from Oaxaca, Mexico, cultivated over generations and likely dating back to the time of the Aztecs. 

This variety boasts excellent flavor, good production, and hotter-than-average jalapeno heat. Zapotec jalapenos are becoming a must-grow variety for jalapeno lovers. Read below for more information on this variety and how to get started growing it.

Profile: Zapotec Jalapeno

Species: Capsicum annuum
Days to Maturity: 70 days
Height: Up to 36 inches
Open Pollinated? Yes
Heat Level: Toward the higher end of jalapeno heat (2,500 to 8,000 SHU)
Get seeds: Refining Fire Chiles (US), Baker Creek (US), 86Peppers (US), (UK), Fatalii Seeds (EU)
Note to international readers: Some of the US-based seed companies mentioned in this article also ship internationally.

Like most jalapenos, the Zapotec jalapeno is a versatile pepper in the kitchen, but with richer heirloom flavor and an extra kick of heat. 

The peppers get to an ordinary size, around 2 to 3 inches, but have extraordinary flavor. When picked green, the flavor is rich, almost smoky, and then sweetens up as they ripen to a deep red color. The heat is above average for a jalapeno, and many of the fruits also have significant corking (small cracks characteristic of jalapenos). 

The Zapotec jalapeno was introduced to the US by the late, great Beth Boyd, a chili pepper aficionado who brought back the seeds from Oaxaca. This pepper variety has been gaining popularity among growers in recent years as it’s been picked up by more seed vendors.

In the garden, Zapotec is similar to other jalapeno varieties, with sturdy plants getting up to 3 feet tall if given enough space. With rich soil or potting mix, you can expect heavy yields of flavorful, juicy, Zapotec jalapenos.


Planting Zapotec Jalapeno Peppers

Depending on the length of your growing season, you can sow Zapotec jalapeno seeds 6 to 10 weeks before your average last frost date. The goal is to have jalapeno seedlings ready to transplant after nighttime temperatures stay above 50°F (10°C). 

You can sow Zapotec jalapeno seeds in moist (but not soggy) potting mix directly or use the paper towel method of germinating pepper seeds and then carefully transplant sprouted seeds into potting mix. Keep your seedlings under grow lights or a sunny, south-facing window until they’re ready to transplant. 

Keep potting soil moist but avoid overwatering as that can lead to damping off. You do not need to apply fertilizer until your seedlings start growing their true leaves, and you can avoid fertilizing altogether if your potting mix has some nutrients already. 

Transplant your Zapotec jalapeno plants outdoors after your night temperatures no longer drop below 50°F (10°C). You can plant them in the ground or in containers. For in-ground garden beds, plant Zapotec jalapenos no less than 12 inches apart, and preferably at least 15 inches apart to avoid overcrowding. Zapotec jalapenos can tolerate a variety of container sizes, but for plants to reach their full potential, plant them in 5-gallon pots or larger. 

Peppers tolerate partial shade but for healthier, more productive plants, transplant in a location that gets full sun (at least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day). Water in well after transplanting to reduce transplant shock.


Taking Care of Zapotec Jalapeno Peppers

Once established, peppers are pretty easy to take care of. Keep your Zapotec jalapenos well-watered but avoid drowning the roots. 

For an extra nutrient boost, you can apply a tomato fertilizer or all-purpose vegetable fertilizer–either a liquid feed or slow-release fertilizer can work. In general, peppers grow best with more nitrogen in spring and then higher phosphorus and potassium for the rest of the season. 

[Editor’s note: For my Zapotecs growing in containers, I like to add some organic bloom fertilizer mixed with blood meal before transplanting, and then use slow-release fertilizer spikes until fall.]


Harvesting Zapotec Jalapenos

Like most jalapenos, Zapotec jalapenos are best harvested any time after they reach their full size (around 2 to 3 inches for Zapotecs) and have turned a darker, shinier green color. Occasionally, you may find shorter jalapenos that never get to their full size, but as long as you see them go from that dull, light-green phase to a darker color, they’re ready for picking.

Zapotec jalapenos can also be harvested when they turn red. Ripe, red Zapotec jalapenos can be used the same way as green ones, but they have a richer, sweeter flavor and are a bit hotter. [Editor’s note: I love using red jalapenos as a base for hot sauces!]

Since Zapotec jalapenos are an open-pollinated variety, you can save the seeds from your fully ripened peppers (the red ones) and replant them year after year. To guarantee no accidental cross-pollination if you’re growing lots of different pepper varieties, you can isolate the buds– carefully cover a part of a branch a mesh bag, wait until some of the flowers self-pollinate and the little peppers start growing, and then take the bag off and use a little string to identify them for seed-saving. 

One or two ripe Zapotec jalapenos will yield enough seeds for several years of planting in a small salsa garden.