In the vegetable garden, some plants blur the boundary between beautiful and delicious. The vibrant reds, yellows, oranges, and purples of our ripening fruits and vegetables sometimes seem to lend themselves to a use beyond the plate; these lovely veggies enhance the flower garden and vase as much as they do our recipes. The ornamental pepper is definitely a case of an edible, making the crossover to the ornate. Sporting fruits and foliage in a rainbow of colors, as well as offering a diversity of shapes, these fast-growing summer peppers will make you feel like you're on vacation every time you see these cheerful plants.
- Botanical Name: Capsicum annuum
- Common Name: Ornamental pepper
- Plant Type: Tender perennial
- Mature Size: Six inches to three feet
- Sun Exposure: Full sun
- Soil Type: Rich loam
- Soil pH: Slightly acidic; 6.0-6.8
- Bloom Time: Summer
- Flower Color: White or yellow
- Hardiness Zones: 9-11
- Native Area: Central and South America
How to Grow Ornamental Pepper Plants
If you can grow tomatoes, you can grow ornamental peppers. Both are members of the Solanaceae family, and both enjoy full sun and hot weather. One of the most common mistakes in growing ornamental peppers is planting them outdoors too early. Plants are often sold in garden centers before the weather is agreeable for them to go in the ground. If you feel like going to the pool, it's probably the right time to grow ornamental peppers outdoors. Not only should the chance of all frost be past, but nights should be warm too, with temperatures at 60 degrees F or above.
Ornamental peppers need full sun for the energy to produce flowers and colorful fruit. If you grow these plants indoors, you should use supplemental artificial lighting for healthy plants and good fruiting.
Plant your ornamental peppers in a rich, loamy soil. Generous soil amendments of compost and manure will both improve tilth and add trace nutrients for healthier plants. If your soil is heavy clay, plant your peppers in raised beds or use containers for good drainage.
While ornamental peppers exhibit limited drought tolerance, they do not like to be waterlogged either. Water whenever the soil's surface feels dry, and aim for a moisture level like that of a wrung-out sponge.
Temperature and Humidity
Like their flavor, ornamental peppers like it hot. Temperatures of 75 degrees F and up stimulate rapid growth. Humidity is a less important growth factor, as long as roots stay moist.
Ornamental peppers are moderate feeders, and need a steady stream of nutrients to keep up with blooming and fruiting. A 5-10-10 fertilizer with more phosphorus and potassium than nitrogen will encourage fruit and bloom production without making plants too leafy.
Potting and Repotting
As an annual, the root system of ornamental peppers is small and shallow. A six-inch container is big enough to hold a pepper plant, but smaller containers also dry out faster. A larger container that holds multiple plants or a mixed planting will be more successful outdoors. Indoor pepper plants will tolerate smaller containers. It's time to repot if you need to water the plants more than once per day.
Varieties of Ornamental Pepper
When it comes to ornamental peppers, you can go bright and cheerful or dark and moody. 'Chilly Chili' has long yellow and red peppers that extend straight up from the tops of plants like fingers. 'Black Pearl' has midnight purple foliage and shiny dark fruits that give the plant its name. 'Aurora' bears peppers that ripen from green to purple to orange and red, giving you a rainbow of color on one plant.
Toxicity of Ornamental Pepper
Ornamental peppers are non-toxic, and are as safe to consume as culinary peppers. Animals tend to leave them alone due to their spicy nature.
Being Grown in Containers
Ornamental peppers of all types are great container plants. You can pair them up with other ornamental plants that love full sun and hot weather, like zinnias, marigolds, or million bells. Some ornamental peppers (like 'Sangria') have a trailing habit that makes them attractive hanging basket specimens.
Growing From Seeds
If you want to create a border edge of ornamental peppers, starting them from seed is an economical way to get plants by the dozen. Start seeds about eight weeks before your last frost, and cover with a half inch of soil. Use heating mats or soil warming cables if necessary to get soil temperature to 80 degrees. It can take up to 20 days to see germination. After germination, grow transplants in a 60 degree environment.
Ornamental Pepper vs Vegetable Garden Peppers
Ornamental peppers and edible peppers belong to the same genus, so what's the difference? Ornamental peppers usually have a very dwarf growing habit compared to edible hot and mild peppers. Peppers bred for the vegetable garden have many distinct flavor nuances, whereas if you bite into an ornamental pepper, you will only notice a flat and sometimes bitter hot spicy sensation, without any smokiness or sweetness. Finally, ornamental peppers produce their fruits at the tops or tips of the plants where they can be seen, while the fruits of edible peppers are often hidden in the foliage.