Chili peppers are a global crop with roots in the ancient world of the Americas. Christopher Columbus took them back to Spain in 1493, but it was Portuguese explorers who planted the worldwide spread of chilies when they carried seeds from Brazil to India a few years after Columbus. 

Today’s super-hot varieties like the Carolina Reaper, Devil’s Tongue and Trinidad Scorpion throw down their names like a dare. The Death Spiral, also known as Death Pepper, is a member of the Capsicum chinense family, and it’s a fairly new arrival on the super-hot scene. 

Jim Duffy of Refining Fire Chiles noticed a variant of the Naga Bubblegum Red chili (the seeds of which he received from English grower Terry Smith) growing among his plants in 2016. He saved the seeds, grew them in isolation to prevent cross pollination, and achieved the same results in several generations. Duffy named and released the Death Spiral pepper after the 2017 growout.

The Death Spiral features a similar bumpy, wrinkly skin, but the calyx — where the stem joins the pod — remains green, unlike on the Naga Bubblegum Red. 

Chilies get their heat from the alkaloid compound capsaicin. In its pure form, capsaicin is a yellowish liquid, and you can sometimes see the yellow veins in a pepper and guess how hot it will taste. 

In most peppers, the capsaicin is concentrated in the seeds and pith, so removing them tames the heat. Not so in super-hots like the Death Spiral. Researchers at New Mexico State University found that these peppers pack as much heat in their flesh as in their pith and seeds.


Grouping of Death Spiral peppers in various colors

In 1912, an American pharmacy professor named Wilbur Scoville devised a way to measure the amount of heat-producing alkaloids in chilies. The Scoville Organoleptic test involved distilling dried chili pepper in alcohol, then diluting it in sugar water until trained testers couldn’t detect the heat. The greater the dilution, the higher the number of Scoville Heat Units. High-performance liquid chromatography has replaced human tasters, making the measurement more precise and consistent.

The Carolina Reaper retains its place at the top of the super-hot hierarchy, with a rating of 2.2 million Scoville units. The Death Spiral is relatively mild by comparison, clocking in on the Scoville scale at about 1.3 million. 

Shutterstock graphic of capsaicin

Aside from the culinary uses — and bragging rights — associated with super-hot peppers, they also hold value for the amount of capsaicin they produce. Chilies have a long history of medicinal use; in traditional Mayan medicine, capsicum peppers are a remedy for asthma, coughs and sore throat. Aztec medicine treats toothache with a hot pepper pod and salt, a remedy that continues in some places today. The pharmaceutical industry has long used capsaicin in creams and liniments for pain relief. Research shows that capsaicin holds promise in fighting certain kinds of cancer, including colon cancer and leukemia. Many people tout chili peppers’ overall health benefits, and some science seems to bear this out. For example, a 2015 study in the British Medical Journal found that people who ate spicy food every day were less likely to die of cancer or diabetes.

Death Spiral peppers change color as they ripen, from light green to peach, then orange and finally red. Their ends are pointy, and they can develop tails as well. The flavor is floral and fruity, with an upfront burn that’s hotter than most Naga type peppers. The plants grow to over four feet tall, and the fruit shape and size may vary quite a bit.

NOTE: This story corrects a version published in the 2022 Whole Seed Catalog to reflect that Jim Duffy developed the Death Spiral pepper.