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 use beyond the plate; These lovely veggies, called ornamental peppers, enhance the flower garden and vase as much as they do our recipes.
Ornamental peppers produce fruits and foliage in a rainbow of colors and a diversity of elongated and round shapes. These fast-growing summer peppers are planted in the spring once the soil has warmed to at least 70 degrees Fahrenheit. The leaves of ornamental pepper plants are toxic to humans and animals.
|Common Name||Ornamental pepper, Christmas pepper plant|
|Botanical Name||Capsicum annuum cultivars|
|Plant Type||Perennial vegetable, usually grown as an annual|
|Size||6 in. to 3 ft. tall|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun|
|Soil Type||Rich loam|
|Soil pH||Slightly acidic (6.0 to 6.8)|
|Hardiness Zones||9-11 (USDA); generally grown as an annual|
|Native Area||Central America, South America|
|Toxicity||Leaves are toxic to people and pets|
Watch Now: How to Grow and Care for the Ornamental Pepper Plant
How to Plant Ornamental Peppers
When to Plant
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 the time is right for swimming in an outdoor pool, conditions are also suitable for growing ornamental peppers outdoors.
Not only should the chance of all frost be passed, but nights should be warm too, with air temperatures at least 60 degrees Fahrenheit and preferably higher. Soil temperatures should be at least 70 degrees before sowing seeds outdoors or planting nursery transplants. Gardeners growing peppers from seeds generally find it advisable to start them indoors. Peppers can be temperamental to direct sow in the garden, especially in cooler climates with a short growing season.
Selecting a Planting Site
Ornamental peppers prefer a site where there is 6 to 8 hours of sunlight a day. Make sure the site gets less than 1 inch of water a week. Because these plants are grown as much for their ornamental value as their fruit, place them where you can enjoy the view.
Spacing, Depth, and Support
Plant ornamental pepper seedlings with three to four true leaves (not the cotyledons) about 12 to 24 inches apart in the garden in holes that are about 3 to 4 inches deep. Ornamental pepper plants have an upright growth habit. Most ornamental pepper plants have been bred so that they do not need to be staked or caged, but if the plant is exceptionally heavy with fruit, you may want to add a support.
Ornament Pepper Care
Ornamental peppers need full sun to provide the energy for producing 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 rich, loamy soil. Generous soil amendments of compost and well-rotted 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.
If growing ornamental peppers in pots, any all-purpose potting mix will be sufficient, provide the container has good drainage.
While ornamental peppers react badly to dry conditions, 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. About 1 inch or less of water per week is recommended. Check container-grown plants often for water, as they dry out more quickly than in-ground plants.
Temperature and Humidity
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. Temperatures of 75 degrees Fahrenheit and up stimulate rapid growth. Planting peppers in cold soil may cause them to remain stunted for the entire growing season. Humidity is a less important growth factor, as long as roots stay moist. However, temperatures above 90 degrees may cause blossom drop, but the plants will rebound once the temperatures cool.
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. Side-dress the plants with fertilizer when the fruit first begins to form, then a second time about six weeks later.
Types of Ornamental Peppers
When it comes to ornamental peppers, you can go bright and cheerful or dark and moody. Here are a few popular types of ornamental peppers.
- '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.
- 'Bolivian Rainbow' produces very spicy peppers that look like colorful little Christmas light bulbs.
- 'Sangria' has a trailing habit that makes the type attractive hanging basket specimens.
- 'NuMex Easter' produces pretty pastel peppers and dark green leaves.
Ornamental Peppers 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, although that isn't true for all ornamental pepper varieties. 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.
Harvesting Ornamental Peppers
If you choose to use ornamental peppers for cuisine, harvest the peppers before the first frost of the fall. Simply use sharp shears or a knife to cut the fruit off the plant and store in the refrigerator. Use super-hot ornamental peppers very sparingly chopped up in hot sauces, salsas, sauces, omelets, rice and bean dishes, and curries. Wear gloves when handling hot peppers.
Growing Ornamental Peppers in Pots
Ornamental peppers of all types are great container plants. The root system of an ornamental pepper is small and shallow. A 6-inch container is big enough to hold a pepper plant, but remember that small containers also dry out faster. A larger container that holds multiple plants or a mixed planting will be more successful outdoors, while indoor pepper plants will tolerate smaller containers.
Pruning ornamental peppers is not necessary, but it will help them retain a smaller form. Pinch off the growing tips to create a bushier plant. When the stems are long at about 4 to 6 inches, trim a half an inch to encourage less leggy growth. However, do not trim flowering stems.
Propagating Ornamental Peppers
Propagating ornamental pepper plants can be tricky, which is why most gardeners prefer planting from seed. But, you can try to propagate this plant using stem cuttings. Take these steps if you want to try propagating from cuttings.
- Choose a healthy stem and use a sharp, sterilized cutting tool to cut on the diagonal a 5-inch portion with at least two leaf nodes.
- Strip the bottom 2 to 3 inches of leaves and dip that end in rooting hormone.
- Prepare a small seedling pot with draining holes and well-draining potting soil for the cutting.
- Make a hole in the soil using a pencil and place the cutting in about 1 inch down, firmly pack the soil around the cutting.
- Put the cutting in a very warm spot, keep it constantly moist (but not soggy).
- Transplant the cutting into a more permanent 6- or 8-inch pot, or in the ground, after about eight weeks when it has grown a few inches.
How to Grow Ornamental Peppers From Seeds
When growing them yourself from seeds, they should be started indoors a full two months before last spring frost. Seed germination to finished fruit production can take 12 to 22 weeks, depending on variety.
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 in containers filled with seed-starter mix about eight weeks before the last frost, covering with 1/2 inch of soil. Use heating mats or soil warming cables if necessary to get soil temperature to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. It can take up to 20 days until germination. Make sure the soil starting mix does not dry out.
After germination, make sure seedlings receive at least 12 to 16 hours of light per day. Grow the seedlings in a slightly cooler environment until you are ready to transplant outdoors into garden soil that has warmed to at least 70 degrees. It takes about six to eight weeks for seedlings to reach a good transplant size. Pot up peppers to a larger container filled with potting soil when the plant has two sets of true leaves. Harden off plants for two weeks before planting in the garden.
Potting and Repotting Ornamental Peppers
If you're planting ornamental peppers in pots for a burst of color, you will typically need to repot them every two years as the plant becomes root-bound. You'll also know it's time to repot if you need to water the plants more than once per day, because the water will simply seep out of the drain holes if there's no soil to absorb the moisture.
When repotting, choose a pot in the next size pot of any material and with a large drainage hole. When taking the plant out of its pot for repotting, hold the root ball together for less stress on the plant. However, if the root is tightly bound, rake it out a bit with your hands and trim off any shriveled or poor-looking roots. Water potted plants when the top inch of soil is dry, and water enough until moisture starts dripping from the bottom of the container.
Though ornamental pepper plants prefer life outdoors, you can pot them and overwinter them. Ornamental peppers prefer an indoor temperature of 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and 55 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit during the night. You can best achieve this by placing the plants in the sunniest window possible, or place them under grow lights or fluorescent lights for 14 hours a day. Water only when the soil is dry to the touch. Use a sanitized, sharp tool to trim any leggy growth from the plants and move them outdoors again after the last frost of the spring.
Common Pests and Plant Diseases
As with standard garden peppers, several insect pests can be a problem with ornamental peppers, especially aphids, spider mites, hornworms, and thrips. Aphids and spider mites can be eradicated with an insecticidal soap or citrus oil. Thrips may require a chemical spray, which is acceptable with ornamental peppers where the fruit will not be consumed.
The most common diseases of ornamental peppers are fungal diseases such botrytis (gray mold) and pythium root rot. Both are more likely during wet conditions when airflow is poor and soil is soggy. Fungicidal sprays or powders can help control it, along with correcting cultural practices.
Are ornamental peppers easy to grow?
Ornamental peppers can be easy to grow if they are kept warm and given enough light.
Can ornamental peppers be grown indoors?
Yes, these plants make beautiful, colorful houseplants as long as you keep them warm in well-draining pots that are at least 6 to 8 inches wide.
Are ornamental peppers edible?
Yes, they are, but they can taste either too bland or unbearably hot, even for those who love spicy food.
What can you plant alongside ornamental peppers?
Pair them up with other ornamental plants that love full sun and hot weather, like zinnias, marigolds, or million bells. The mix also looks beautiful in a container.
Capsicum annuum (Longum group). North Carolina Extension Garden Toolbox.