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 enhance the flower garden and vase as much as they do our recipes.
The ornamental pepper is definitely a case of an edible that makes 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 them.
If purchased as nursery seedlings, these vegetables are planted in the spring once the soil has warmed to at least 70 degrees Fahrenheit. 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.
|Botanical Name||Capsicum annuum cultivars|
|Common Name||Ornamental pepper|
|Plant Type||Perennial vegetable, usually grown as an annual|
|Size||6 in. to 3 ft.|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun|
|Soil Type||Rich loam|
|Soil pH||Slightly acidic (6.0 to 6.8)|
|Hardiness Zones||9 to 11 (USDA); generally grown as an annual|
|Native Area||Central and South America|
|Toxicity||Leaves are toxic to humans, pets|
How to Plant Ornamental Peppers
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 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.
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 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 of water per week is recommended.
Temperature and Humidity
Like their flavor, ornamental peppers like it hot. 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.
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.
Are Ornamental Peppers Toxic?
Peppers are solanaceous plants—members of the nightshade family that contain high concentrations of alkaloid compounds in the leaves. Eating the green leaves can cause gastrointestinal discomfort, nausea, and diarrhea in humans and animals. However, the fruit of ornamental peppers is perfectly edible, though not as flavorful as standard garden peppers.
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.
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. 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.
Growing Ornamental Peppers in Pots
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.
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. It's time to repot if you need to water the plants more than once per day.
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 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 to see germination.
After germination, 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. Plant ornamental peppers about 12 inches apart in the garden.
Common Pests and Diseases
As with standard garden peppers, several insect pests can be a problem with ornamental peppers, especially aphids, spider mites, 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.