Professor Pepper spices up the campus

By Ivana Hester

After several years spent in the laboratory, adjunct faculty member Koch Unni’s creation has come alive. And it’s hot.

The KOCHTERRII™, named after Unni and his partner, Terri Reardon, a floriculturist-propagator at the Chicago Park District, is now ready for consumption. According to the Garfield Park Conservatory, which owns the trademarked product, the pepper is hotter than a jalapeño but tamer than cayenne. However, its parent peppers will remain a secret.

The process Unni used to develop the pepper is called hybridization and is taught in Unni’s horticulture class in the Science and Mathematics Department.

Professor Unni’s fascination with plants started at a young age. He grew up on a farm in India and refers to himself as a farm boy. He received most of his education there at the University of Kerala, in southern India. It was not until he arrived in America that he was named a certified horticulturalist by the National Horticulture Board.

The Chronicle met with Unni to learn more about his pepper creation process and what he plans to work on next.

The Chronicle: What made you want to breed a pepper?

Koch Unni: I was a plant propagator for about 15 to 16 years. Mary Eysenbach, director of conservatories of the Chicago Park District said, “[Someone] with the name Koch had to develop something.”Someone that worked here 45 years ago—his last name was Koch—he developed a hybrid of a plant called a Sanatorium. She said, “Now you develop something.” So at that time, we tried four different types of hybridization: tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and beans. Beans were a little bit tough because the parts, male and female parts, were very tough to get in and the pepper was pretty easy. We got four different varieties of all these various plants and we hybridized them all; one of the fascinating things that came up from it was this one because it was different from the parental characteristics. This one showed both parental characteristics.

How did you go about this process?

KU: My propagator, Terri Reardon, I showed her [the pepper] and from that time on Terri also showed an interest. She said, “Let’s try and isolate the genes.” Isolation means you take this one, collect the seeds and grow the next generation, and a second generation. Out of 50 we may get 10. Out of 10 we did a tasting and decided which one tastes the best. We took that seed and grew one more generation, and by about the fifth generation we found that most of the characteristics were breeding truth, meaning they were showing most of the characteristics that we want.

Was it what you expected as far as taste and look?

KU: There is a tasting after every generation. It is a hot pepper with a fruity flavor. The skin is thick, which keeps the flavor. If it is grown properly it produces 50 to 70 peppers. [I expected the taste because] we knew the parental characteristics. One of the parents was not hot at all, but at the same time it was kind of fruity and fleshy; the other was extremely hot but not fleshy. [What we did not know was] how much time this was going to take and how we could double up that process.

How did you come up with the name?

KU: The name is Terri’s image. She is actually the person who was pretty much responsible for taking seeds and isolating them. I was just hybridizing it. Then she initiated and isolated. Of course, during the process she would show me and I would say, “Fine let’s do that.” We hybridized another flower, also, but that we really didn’t pursue it, but we named it Unity, a combination of my name Unni, and “T” for Terri. So for this one, she put together our names again and came up with, KOCHTERRII™. After that, it got approved by our director at the conservatory, and now it has an international patent.

What do you plan on breeding next?

KU: I have talked to another colleague of mine about breeding a plant called Calathea. A plant that we found can be done is a lotus. Lotus is something that is possible to breed and easily takes it.