Tired of your flowering annuals fizzling out in the oppressive heat and humidity of late summer? The tiny colorful fruits on ornamental peppers (Capsicum annuum) look like flowers from a distance and prosper with hot weather, bringing flower beds back to life. Since these peppers contain spicy compounds in their sap, insect pests avoid the plants, making them low maintenance. They grow until a killing frost in autumn.
Ornamental peppers remain closely related to other culinary bell or jalapeno peppers, likely all derived from a few wild plant species and then selected for color and fruit flavor over the centuries. All peppers (Capsicum sp.) hail from tropical regions in the New World, mainly southern Central America and the expansive Amazon River basin. Columbus brought peppers back to Europe. Native Americans used peppers to season meats and starchy dishes and for medicinal purposes.
Within the plant genus Capsicum, horticulturists group or classify peppers by fruit size, color and number. Generally speaking, ornamental pepper fruits mature small and are much less practical to harvest and eat, unlike the larger bell peppers or spicy jalapenos or habaneros. Many ornamental peppers find themselves lumped into the Cerasiforme, Fasciculatum and Conoides cultivation groups, distinguishing them from bell pepper's Grossum group, and chili pepper's Longum group. Any pepper with ornate foliage or colorfully shaped fruits can earn the ambiguous name "ornamental pepper."
With scores of varieties extant today, ornamental peppers typically grow eight to 24 inches tall and bear large amounts of small peppers of various sizes and colors. Pepper plants grow indeterminately, meaning they grow constantly, adding new stems, flowers and producing repeated crops of fruits. Therefore, once an ornamental pepper grows in a garden, constant development of fruits finds them in an array of colors as they ripen in succession. This adds to their ornamental appeal. Some varieties of ornamental peppers boast purple, red or variegated foliage, too.
All pepper plants appreciate sunlight and warmth. Grow them when there is no threat of frost in a fertile, moist but well-draining soil where they receive at least six hours of direct sunlight daily. As air temperatures remain above 75 degrees Fahrenheit, these plants increase their lushness and productivity. The warmer and more humid the weather, the better ornamental pepper plants perform. In the heat of summer, water freely and apply liquid fertilizers, such as 10-10-10, every seven to ten days. Once a fall frost hits, leaves and fruits brown and rot away.
The cultivar 'Black Pearl,' the first ornamental pepper with nearly black leaves, earned All America Selections Winner® status in 2006, meaning its superior performance in trial gardens across the country warranted attention. While new cultivars of ornamental peppers are released yearly by many different seed companies, some "classic" ornamental pepper selections remain popular for planting in annual beds. 'Aurora' produces purple, cone-shaped fruits; 'Bolivian Rainbow' fruits range from lavender to purple, orange, gold and red, all on the same plant. 'Cappa Round Tricolor' produces small ping-pong-ball-like fruits used in the cut flower industry. Lavender, white and pale green leaves grow on 'Calico' and 'Purple Flash.' The names alone reveal the potential ornamental display: 'Chilly Chili,' 'Explosive Embers,' 'Explosive Blast,' 'Explosive Ignite,' 'Fireworks,' 'Marbles' and 'Medusa.'