SAVANNAH, Ga.—While most accomplished gardeners are known to have a "green thumb," William Lane has a fiery, red one. That's because he grows three of the hottest peppers in the world.
"I don’t eat the peppers, I just like to grow them," Lane said. "Plus, you can always find someone who will bet to eat one."
As a member of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Savannah District for 34 years, Lane has spent the last 10 years honing his hobby for unusual crops.
On his one-acre plot in Pembroke, Ga., Lane’s grown everything from tall, towering sunflowers to bushels of tomatoes. His harvest includes pumpkins as large as car tires (his biggest weighed 140 pounds) and mammoth watermelons weighing over 100 pounds.
And, of course, his garden wouldn't be complete without a spicy kick.
Lane grows the Moruga Trinidad Scorpion, which is the hottest pepper in the world according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
He also grows the second hottest pepper from the same family, called the Butch-T Trinidad Scorpion. The third hottest pepper he harvests is commonly known as the "Ghost Pepper." Its scientific name is the Bhut Jolokia.
Peppers are rated for hotness according to the Scoville Scale, named after American chemist Wilbur Scoville. The scale measures the amount of capsaicinoid—an organic compound produced by peppers that causes a burning sensation when eaten (or makes contact with other parts of the body).
For reference, a jalapeno pepper is about 3,000 to 5,000 units.
Lane's hottest pepper, the Moruga Trinidad Scorpion, can rate as high as 2 million units!
The Butch-T Trinidad Scorpion measures between 1.5 million to 1.8 million units, and the ghost pepper rates about 1 million units.
"To say these peppers are hot is an understatement," he said.
Lane said it took several months to obtain the Tinidad Scorpion seeds from Australia.
"I had to complete some online training before I could even submit an application for the seeds," he said. "It was a long process to go through to get all the proper permissions."
He said the Moruga seeds are now available in the U.S. this year. He typically orders half of his seeds nearly a year in advance to ensure he has an ample supply.
Once he gets the seeds, planting them presents another challenge. The seeds can't make direct contact with his skin, so he uses a wet toothpick to move the seeds from the seed pouch to the soil.
Lane recalls one time when he didn’t follow his own precaution.
"I just put my finger along the inside of the bag to reposition it a little so I could reach my toothpick in there to get the seeds. Then I touched my forehead," he said. "Shortly after that, my head felt like it was blistering. I had to go to the kitchen and wash my face with dish soap two or three times."
Lane started growing peppers because his mother had always liked them.
"She would use them to make pepper relish and things like that," he said. "I grew them mainly because of my mom, but then I started branching out and growing the hotter ones."
While he doesn't eat the peppers himself, he brings them to friends with peppery palettes. He said some of his coworkers at the Savannah District have even given them a try, such as Marty Rahn in the civil works project management section.
"I eat them all the time," Rahn said. "One day William brought in a bunch of peppers and asked me if I wanted some, and I've been taking some from him ever since."
Rahn said he puts the peppers in a jar with vinegar for safe keeping. Then, when he's ready to add a kick to his meal, he mixes the peppers with various recipes.
Lane revealed that he also likes to play pranks on his friends and has been known to try and sneak a bit of heat into their food.
“I hid one under some chicken skin when I was grilling out with my hunting buddies,” he said. “I got caught when I turned it over and the skin stuck to the grill.”
Lane currently serves as a quality control inspector for projects at the Savannah harbor dredge disposal areas. He plans to retire at the end of the month after a long career with Savannah's Operations Division.
While some retirees may wonder what they will do with their spare time, Lane is looking forward to relaxing—and maybe growing a few more hot peppers.