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.
When looking at an ornamental pepper cultivar, many people wonder how one plant can produce multiple colors of peppers. 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.
My experience had been that ornamental peppers were edible, but so incredibly hot that most people would not be able to eat them. This year I broke open some dried ornamental peppers I had saved for seed years ago to try and grow them, and regretted not being more careful in handling them. They were still so hot, just touching the seeds made my hands burn!
I recently purchased the cultivar 'Medusa' purely because I liked the look of the peppers–long skinny curlicues that really did remind me of the snakes on the mythological Medusa's head. The plant tag noted that these were "child-safe" peppers with "non-pungent" fruits. Hopefully that means they'll be safe for me too!