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Ornamental peppers offer beautiful summer heat
In the past, I’ve expressed my love for chili peppers -- the hotter the better. But there are only so many ghost, Trinidad Moruga and Carolina Reaper peppers I can eat. Lately, my gastrointestinal tolerance for their heat is waning.
So in these circumstances, what’s a hot pepper lover to do? In my case, it’s growing ornamental peppers, because they love our hot and humid summers.
I’m not alone in this. Gardeners all across the United States are going crazy for ornamental peppers, and the plant breeders and growers are responding to the increased interest.
Every year, there are more new introductions available in a dizzying array of options for the home garden and landscape. They range from big to small, with green, purple and variegated foliage, as well as multicolored fruit. What a fun and unique way to add interest to your garden.
The plants themselves seem to be proud of their fruit, as many hold the pods high above the foliage for our viewing pleasure.
Whenever we use the word “ornamental” to describe any vegetable, many folks automatically assume the fruit is not to be eaten. Generally, this is true because the plants have been selectively bred for color. However, ornamental peppers can be used to spice up a dish, but they tend to be very, very hot. You can see my reaction to eating an ornamental pepper in the Southern Gardening TV segment, “Ornamental Peppers” at http://goo.gl/R4fuvH.
Purple Flash, which was chosen as a Mississippi Medallion winner for 2010, is an example of the versatility and value of ornamental peppers. With its purple-and-white variegated leaves, it is one of the showiest peppers available on the market.
Mississippi State University has grown trials of some great ornamental varieties from the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University. NuMex April Fool’s Day, NuMex Chinese New Year, NuMex Cinco de Mayo and NuMex Easter all provide colorful additions to any garden. In fact, NuMex Easter was named an All-America Selections winner a couple of years ago.
This group is actively breeding new and interesting ornamental peppers that are perfect for our Mississippi landscapes. I’m going to secretly let the cat out of the bag: Some of the NuMex ornamental peppers will be named Mississippi Medallion winners in the near future.
When the pepper plants are producing fruit, it is very common to have peppers in various stages of coloration on the same plant. This is a fantastic feature and provides for an ever-changing look in the landscape. Once fruit has set, it is common for it to remain on the plant for a few months, maintaining the beautiful colors. The colors start to fade only when the fruit begin to dry.
Ornamental peppers prefer to grow in consistently moist soil, but don’t be overly generous with the water, as the plants don’t tolerate waterlogged soil. Fertilize with a good slow-release fertilizer early in the season, but once fruit starts to set, there is no need to add additional nutrition.
Most ornamental peppers begin setting fruit as the temperatures heat up. The best show is saved for late summer and lasts through fall as the plants keep producing. This means you should plant your ornamental peppers in late spring.
I realize it’s too late for plantings this year, but you can consider now what varieties to plant next year. You can buy seeds at many of the online seed houses for an early start.