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Edible Ornamental Peppers

Can you eat your peppers and enjoy looking at them too?

Yes, you can.

Peppers don't have to be just green and bell shaped and relegated to the supermarket shelf or home garden plot. This genus of plants has the genetic potential to provide a wide array of possibilities for the kitchen and the ornamental garden and sometimes both at once.

Since 1991, John Stommel, of the ARS Vegetable Laboratory, and Robert Griesbach, of the ARS Floral and Nursery Plants Research Unit, both in Beltsville, Maryland, have bred peppers to please both the eye and the palate. 

The eye-catching Black Pearl, released in 2005 and honored as a 2006 All-America Selections (AAS) winner, attests to their success in developing new cultivars with both aesthetic and culinary appeal. The award recognizes new flower and vegetable varieties that demonstrate “superior garden performance” in trials conducted throughout the country.

Black Pearl is a robust plant, adaptable to environments from New England to California, Stommel says. In addition, it resists attacks from many insects and fungi and is remarkably drought-tolerant. It can also serve as a hot pepper for the kitchen, making it a dual purpose pepper for today's smaller urban gardens.
Since its release, more than 2 million seeds have been sold.

Black Pearl has company. Tangerine Dream is a sweet, edible ornamental pepper that produces small orange banana-shaped fruit on a prostrate plant.

Stommel and Griesbach look forward to releasing several new pepper cultivars in the future, including one with spreading black foliage and colorful upright peppers with a spicy flavor. Another is exceptionally tall—growing as high as 3 feet. A third, which produces fruit around Halloween, has black foliage and orange, pumpkin-shaped fruit.

Ornamental peppers are just one part of a growing industry. Nursery, landscape, and floral plants are big business, worth about $16 billion a year in this country alone, according to USDA’s Economic Research Service.

Breeding these culinary ornamental peppers has been a cross-laboratory effort. How did the breeders do it? The first step is to isolate individual traits and select the ones they want, Stommel says. Within the Capsicum genus, there is great variety among qualities—like the size, shape, and color of leaves and fruits.

Griesbach compares the process of pepper breeding to assembling a Mr. Potato Head doll. By selecting specific characteristics, breeders can make desirable combinations. Any new combination will create a novel pepper.

“Only your imagination is limiting,” he says.

Source: "Twice as Nice Breeding Versatile Vegetables," Agricultural Research, September 2006

Edible Ornamental Peppers

Bolivian Rainbow
Bolivian Rainbow

Color Guard Pepper
Color Guard Pepper

Explosive Ember
Explosive Ember

Black Pearl
Ornamental Pepper Black Pearl

Experimental Peppers
Experimental Peppers
Geneticists Rob Griesbach (left) and John Stommel
Rob Griesbach (left)
and John Stommel

Halloween Pepper
Halloween Pepper
Miniature Bell Peppers
Miniature Bell Peppers
Tangerine Dream
Tangerine Dream


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