Tis the season for ornamental peppers. Their fruit, in shades of orange, lavender, pink, purple, red or white, adds drama to the garden or containers. Ornamental peppers also bloom before the fruit, but their small flowers don’t get the rave reviews their fruits elicit as they parade themselves in clusters at the top of the plant.
Fruits change color as they ripen so different colors appear on the same plant. Plants are bushy, if pinched when they are young, with glossy green, white-variegated or purple-variegated foliage. They typically grow about 12 inches tall, but there is some variation between cultivars.
Although they begin showing off their fruit in late spring or early summer, many garden centers offer summer crops of fresh plants, ready to brandish their colors in late summer and fall containers.
Ornamental peppers are easy to grow in the garden if they are planted in rich, well-drained soil in full sun. Grown in too shady of conditions, plants grow leggy and won’t produce as many fruits. Gardens with heavy clay soil should be amended with lots of compost before planting. Space plants according to the directions on plant labels. Most varieties are planted about 12 inches apart.
Feed plants with an organic fertilizer high in phosphorous, like 10-20-10, every month or so in spring and summer to encourage the most flowers (and then fruits). Ornamental peppers prefer even moisture – not too much water at a time and not dry for extended periods.
If you want to grow ornamental peppers in containers outdoors, use a light soilless potting mix in a pot with drainage holes. Position the plant in its new pot at the same depth it was growing in the nursery pot. Be prepared to water more frequently because potting mixes in pots dry out more quickly than soil in the garden. Plant them in 6- to 8-inch pots by themselves and set them on an outdoor table where you can admire their colorful fruits up close. Use them to replace declining annuals in summer containers or combine them with mums and ornamental cabbage in fall designs.
Ornamental peppers can even be grown as houseplants. Just like growing ornamental peppers in outdoor containers, choose a pot with drainage holes, fill it with a light soilless potting mix and position the plant in its new pot at the same depth it was growing in the nursery pot. Set it in sunny window and water whenever the soil begins to dry. Water thoroughly but never let the pot sit in a water-filled saucer. Feed ornamental peppers grown indoors every couple of weeks with an organic houseplant fertilizer until fruits form.
Although ornamental peppers are edible, most people enjoy them for their ornamental qualities instead of their flavor. And, some are very hot, as hot as cayenne peppers. I know I won’t be taking a bite!
Ornamental peppers, botanically named Capsicum annuum, are hot (the popular kind of hot, not the burn your throat kind of hot) and have garnered the attention of plant hybridizers. New cultivars are introduced ever year with longer bloom times and brighter fruit colors. Here are just a few.
Black Pearl is dark and seductive. The foliage, so deep purple it’s nearly black, is the perfect backdrop for its round, glossy, black fruits that change to red as they age. Plants grow 18 inches tall and 12 inches wide. Black Pearl was named an All-America Selection winner in 2006.
Calico flaunts unique purple, white and green variegated foliage. Purple fruits mature to red.
Hot Pops Purple shows off round purple and orange fruits. This more heavily branched, compact plant grows just 6 inches tall.
NuMex Easter is perfect for fall displays that feature pink and purple instead of the expected orange and burgundy. The pointed fruits appear in clusters of pastel shades of cream, lavender, orange, red and yellow. Plants grow just 8 inches tall and 10 inches wide. NuMex Easter was named an All-American Selection winner in 2014.
Sedona Sun (pictured above) shows off flashy yellow and orange fruits on plants growing up to 12 inches tall.
Head to your local garden center, choose some ornamental peppers to add some seasonal panache to your garden or containers, and garden with me!