As an ornamental horticulture guy, I’m always thinking about how to expand or extend the usefulness of our landscape and garden plants. I’ve been toying with a nontraditional use for ornamental peppers.
This is a group of attractive plants many of us grow during the summer. They come in a colorful and wide variety of selections. I have always marveled at how the colors change as the pepper fruit matures across the season.
The idea I’ve been playing with is growing some ornamental peppers indoors during the winter and using them in Christmas and holiday season décor.
Now, this isn’t a new idea. I remember a day over 30 years ago when my fellow grad students and I were kicking around ideas. One student came up with this totally out-of-bounds thought of growing peppers specifically for the holidays. We’ll call them Christmas Peppers, he said.
This was one of those wild and crazy ideas — and maybe has a touch of horticultural heresy —because everyone knows that poinsettias are the end-all, be-all holiday plant forevermore. But still, the idea stuck with me, and I’m so glad it did.
Slowly over the years, garden centers and floral designers have been adding ornamental peppers into their holiday creations. In fact, the Chili Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University has developed an entire series of ornamental peppers to celebrate the holidays, from NuMex New Year’s Day to NuMex Christmas.
What I like about using ornamental peppers as holiday plants is the fact that the plants continue to produce multicolored fruit over most of the winter. Most of the ornamental peppers grown for the holidays stay small and are well mannered.
A couple of my landscape favorites are perfect for holiday use.
Chilly Chili seems to explode in a dramatic, colorful demonstration. This 2002 All-America Selections winner holds the fruit above the foliage. Fruit starts as yellow-green and transitions to a bright orange and brilliant red.
Chilly Chili is a great choice for container planting, as the plants reach just 1 foot tall and wide. These peppers are not hot and are probably the safest to grow around curious children.
The ornamental pepper variety Sangria holds its slender fruit pointing upward boastfully as if getting ready for a party. This pretty ornamental pepper bears fruit in almost unbelievable numbers so that they resemble confetti.
Young Sangria peppers emerge greenish-yellow and then march through a wonderful parade of colors from orange, lilac, purple and finally on to a glorious crimson red. Unlike Chilly Chili, Sangria peppers are hot, hot, hot!
Growing ornamental peppers for the holidays is really easy.
Find a bright window where the plant can receive about six hours of sunlight a day. Temperature-wise, if you’re comfortable, the plants will be happy. To be more specific, this means daytime temperatures in the low 70s and a little cooler at night to the mid-60s. Temperatures in this range will help encourage and prolong the flowering cycle and production of the colorful fruit.
As with all indoor plants, correct watering is important. Keep the potting mix consistently moist, not waterlogged, as this condition leads to root rot issues that cause the flowers to drop off.
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve already seen nice selections of ornamental peppers produced for the holidays at local garden centers. Consider getting one or two to complement your poinsettias.
• Dr. Gary Bachman is an Extension and research professor of horticulture at the Mississippi State University Coastal Research and Extension Center in Biloxi. He is also the host of the popular Southern Gardening television and radio programs. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org