Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
Peppers are not just for eating—some cultivars make a great splash of color in the landscape and are actually bred to be used as ornamentals rather than a part of the vegetable garden.
Many ornamental pepper cultivars produce multiple colors of peppers on a single plant. How do they do that?. Actually what you see is all the same pepper, just in different stages of ripening. A pepper may start out white, then turn to yellow, then orange, then red, and maybe even purple.
Given that peppers are formed throughout the growing season, they are all on different schedules as far as ripening, so we see different colors. With ornamental cultivars of peppers, plant breeders have selected plants with many different colors occurring during the ripening process.
Another unique feature of ornamental peppers is where the peppers occur on the plant. In most cases, the peppers are borne upright and above the foliage. Compare that with a typical pepper in the vegetable garden that hangs downward and is obscured by leaves. Again, this is a trait that has been actively selected for in ornamental peppers
The selection of ornamental pepper cultivars has exploded in recent years. Louisiana State University (LSU) has published results of commercially available ornamental peppers evaluated in their trial gardens in 2007 and 2008 and listed forty six cultivars!
The wide variety of plant and fruit size, shape, and color makes it hard to choose just one ornamental pepper for the landscape. At our house we ended up with three this year-- 'Black Pearl', 'Sangria' and 'Purple Flash'.
'Black Pearl' has been called the first "black leaved" ornamental pepper cultivar. The entire plant, fruit and all, is a very deep shade of purple, nearly black. Fruits are borne in clusters resembling black pearls, maturing to deep red. 'Black Pearl' was an All America Selections Winner® in 2006, meaning it was selected for superior performance after being grown in trial gardens across the country. It was also a top ten pick in the LSU pepper trials in 2007/2008. It reaches a mature height of about twenty inches and is reported to look better as the summer progresses, refusing to look tired and ragged like some annuals in late summer.
I planted my 'Black Pearl' plants in pots on my patio-- one 'Black Pearl' along with one sweet potato vine 'Margarita' and one Fiber Optic grass. I really love how this combination is filling out, and I would definitely plant it again.
'Sangria' is a new cultivar for 2009 from the same breeders that developed 'Black Pearl'. I think they have another winner on their hands. These plants produce an enormous amount of fruits. It seems like there are more fruits than leaves on some of our plants! The fruits are red, orange, purple, and all shades in between.
Ornamental peppers are edible, but many times they are extremely hot, making them a potential hazard to small children. 'Sangria' looks like it would knock your socks off if you ate it, but it actually is quite mild and very safe to consume. It is a shorter plant, reaching only twelve inches tall, but will spread about eighteen inches wide.
Another new cultivar for 2009 also from the breeders that developed 'Black Pearl' and 'Sangria' is 'Purple Flash'. What catches your eye with this plant is not the fruit, but the leaves. Leaves are deep purple, nearly black, streaked with violet and white. Fruits are round and deep purple. This plant is also rather short, maxing out at about fifteen inches tall, spreading about twenty inches wide.
At our house, we tend to mix flowers and vegetables freely in our landscape. I know it's not for everyone, but you'd be surprised how much ornamental value vegetables have, especially when paired with plants bred to be ornamental. We alternated 'Sangria' and 'Purple Flash' plants in a border along with red and green cabbage in front of some red cannas near our patio. Looking at how we planted it, it initially looked like way too many plants for the space. But there was a method to the madness. The cabbage is only there for a relatively short time. As the cabbage forms heads and is harvested, the peppers are filling out the space.
I'm eager to see what the future has in store for ornamental peppers. I have read that we may see peppers bred with both ornamental and culinary value. With the increased interest in vegetable gardening, that would be a natural fit. I know they will be a natural fit in my garden as well.