Habanero chili peppers are a variety of Capsicum chinense, a species know for producing the hottest pepper varieties on the planet. At maturity, the pepper can attain a maximum of 2.5 inches, with a wide variation in color, from shades of red to white or brown. While there are hotter peppers on record, such as the newly crowned Naga Viper at nearly 1.4 million Scoville units, they are few and nearly all are cultivars incorporating the same species. The Habanero most commonly grown is rated between 100,000 and 350,000 Scoville units.
To understand what these huge numbers mean, we can compare the Habanero with its close relative, the Cayenne pepper, which typically ranks between 30,000 and 50,000 Scoville units. The Scoville heat unit is a qualitative test relying on tasters to eat a consecutive number of preparations containing declining amounts of the pepper until its heat can no longer be detected. Since this would tend to build up the heat tolerance of any taster's tongue, it is probably wise to start your own preparations with less of the pepper, adding more with practice.
Habanero chili peppers have a history of use that dates back a very long time. One domesticated Habanero, which was dated at 8,500 years old, was found at an archaeological dig in Peru. Though Habanero translates to "from Havana", it is beloved the pepper was brought north from South America. It is worthwhile to note that the namers of plants do not always have their facts straight. The species itself was named chinense due to the decidedly European belief that it originated in China, which we have since learned is home to another hot pepper species, Capsicum frutescens.
Habanero remains a staple ingredient of dishes prepared on the Yucatan Peninsula, but it has also been adopted by cultures outside of its native, tropical home. There are many recipes for preparing Habanero hot sauce, using both traditional ingredients and newer explorations in taste. Marie Sharp's Grapefruit Pulp Habanero Hot Sauce combines grapefruit and key lime for fruity heat, while her other blend mixes the same with orange pulp! Rasta Fire Hot Sauce takes the orange one step further by adding pineapple, papaya, and a blend of spices from across the world. Hot sauce has come a long way since the Yucatan.
The plant has come a long way too. The native habitat of Habanero chili peppers is the lowland tropics where temperatures are high, soil is dry, and the air is moist. Seeds were brought back to Europe by early explorers and later grown by gardeners in the US. Though the European and US climates are mostly unsuitable for the all-year production possible in the tropics, it was an Englishman with a flair for the cosmopolitan, who has the credit of crossing two varieties of Capsicum chinense with the Asian pepper, Capsicum frutescens, to produce the Naga Viper.
If Habanero comes up around native Spanish speakers, you can show off your own cosmopolitan skills by being sure to pronounce it correctly as ha-be-NAY-ro. The more historically astute readers will recognize the name of the Roman Emperor Nero, also pronounced Nay-ro, in the word. Just as Habanero chili peppers will light a fire in your mouth, so did Nero light the Great Fire of Rome.