Foliage, Vegetables

Ornamental Peppers: Bright Pops Of Pepper Power


Numex Easter ornamental peppers

Ornamental peppers provide more than just eye candy. They’re also packed full of spice. While they aren’t the most pleasant or flavorful peppers, they provide a punch in any dish. So consider growing ornamental pepper plants this spring!

Once you plant ornamental peppers, you can practically ignore them and they will thrive. Growing ornamental peppers, therefore, is an easy and rewarding experience. While you focus on the higher maintenance plants in your vegetable garden, your ornamental peppers pop with color.

Whether it’s hot pepper flakes you’d like to include in a dish, or simply a splash of color with some heat, the colorful fruit of an ornamental pepper plant provides. If eating the fruit of the pepper plants isn’t your style, know they’re great in pest deterrent sprays and landscapes. 

So, let’s discuss growing ornamental peppers, and cover a few different types you can seek out for your spring planting.

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Quick Care Guide

Numex Easter ornamental peppers
Numex Easter ornamental peppers are vibrant. Source: cultivar413
Common NameOrnamental pepper
Scientific NameCapsicum annuum
FamilySolanaceae or the nightshade family
Height & Spread6 inches to 3 feet tall, 8 to 24-inch spread
LightFull sun
SoilRich loam
Water1 inch per week
Pests & DiseasesAphids, mites, thrips, Botrytis, Pythium root rot

All About Ornamental Peppers

The ornamental pepper plant (C. annuum) is comprised of many different varieties and thus multiple common names. We will examine some of these in the next section. Most ornamental peppers originate in southern North America, the Caribbean, and northern South America. Ornamental pepper plants are tender perennials. 

The ornamental pepper is a dense, round shrub with alternate, ovate dark purple to deep green leaves. It’s a bushier plant, with green branches that reach anywhere from 6 inches to 3 feet tall, and spread 8 to 24 inches wide. The compact plants bloom inconspicuous off-white flowers – sometimes with a purple tint – that require pollination either by hand or from bumblebees. 

The flowers bloom in the late spring, and with successful pollination, peppers form within 4 months. They resemble Christmas lights in an upright position. Pepper colors range from bright red, yellow, orange, green, or deep purple. The root ball of ornamental pepper is small and shallow. As the weather cools in early fall, ornamental peppers stop producing, and they die back in frost. Those not exposed to frost will survive throughout the year. 

Most people grow ornamental peppers for non-culinary reasons, but they work very well in bean dishes, salsas, and hot sauces. Anywhere you need an extra kick, these peppers deliver. Some people are unpleasantly surprised when they take a pepper off the ornamental plants and take a bite. That’s because there’s more punch than flavor involved when you eat ornamental peppers. 

Ornamental peppers made their way to Europe in the 15th century and were prized as showy, colorful garden plants. Today, they’re known as Christmas plants due to their bright fruit that makes them an excellent addition to floral arrangements and as a bedding plant in ornate landscapes. They’re also great container plants.  Whether you want to eat them or not, they’re sure to be a hit. 

Types of Ornamental Peppers

Sangria Ornamental Peppers
Sangria ornamental peppers are vividly red. Source: kuljuls

Chilly chili peppers grow on a dense plant with green leaves that reaches 1 foot tall and spreads 6 to 10 inches wide. The plant produces upright, slender, red, orange, and yellow fruit that have the same amount of spice as a poblano at their hottest. The Chilly Chili plant grows well in prepared ground or containers. 

Prairie fire pepper plants are great for hanging baskets, containers, or the ground, due to their low-lying nature. At a height of 8 inches and a spread of 1 foot, they’ll fit into almost any landscape. The densely arranged dark green leaves are punctuated by stout red, yellow, orange, purple, and cream-colored peppers. If you want to use them in the kitchen, know they are just as spicy as Thai peppers, and ten times the heat of jalapenos. 

Bolivian Rainbow peppers are just as lovely as the name suggests. They’re taller than the previous ornamental peppers we’ve mentioned at a height of 2 feet. The slender leaves are accented by Christmas light-shaped peppers that are purple, bright red, orange, and yellow. These have a cayenne-level heat. 

Black Pearl peppers grow on a plant with dark green leaves that is 18 inches wide and tall. The fruit is the origin of the common name for this pepper plant, as they turn from a bright red to a deep almost black purple. Black pearl peppers also pack cayenne-level heat and add a touch of spicy darkness to a garden or a dish. 

Medusa ornamental peppers are very small and make excellent bedding plants or container plantings. They reach a mere 6 to 8 inches tall, and have peppers that are ivory white when they first form, then deepen to a yellow, orange, and finally bright red. These peppers are great for children’s gardens because they don’t pack nearly the same punch as the others we’ve mentioned. 

Numex Easter peppers are lovely and produce fruits that cluster together in fours. Pepper colors range from white to pale yellow, light purple, orange, and red. The leaves are dark green and sit atop stems that reach 8 inches high and spread 10 inches wide. They’re lovely in hanging baskets and container plantings and pack a pretty hefty heat. 

Sangria peppers are lovely vibrant specimens that grow red peppers that turn to reddish-purple late in the season. The Sangria plant type grows peppers bred for their intensely colored fruit, and the hues of them pop out among the deep green foliage. The height and spread of these plants is 16 and 18 inches, respectively. Sangria plants have hot peppers that have about the same heat as cayenne. And Sangria is great indoors, outdoors, in the earth, or containers.

Care

Bolivian Rainbow
Bolivian Rainbow has an unusual holiday-light-like shape. Source: blumenbiene

Once you’ve chosen your preferred plant, it’s time to focus on growing ornamental peppers. Here are the basic tenets of working with these lovely plants.

Sun and Temperature

Growing ornamental peppers requires at least 6 to 8 hours of full sun daily. Partial shade will accommodate ornamental peppers but will reduce yields. Before you go about planting ornamental peppers, consider the range of USDA zones 9 through 11. Outside this range, it’s best to plant in containers that can be moved indoors as frost sets in, or else the plants may die back. Air Pots are an excellent container choice for not only trees, but annual vegetables as well. They’re stocked in our store, too!

In zones close to 9, 10, and 11, the plants may return the following spring with adequate protection through winter. These plants enjoy daytime temperatures of 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit and nighttime temperatures of 55 to 65 degrees. In higher temperatures, flowering, and fruiting slows. In hot summers, ornamental pepper plants may not produce at all. Give outdoor plants plenty of shade where summers are hot, and cover them with frost cloth in a snap freeze.

Water and Humidity

Water plants in the morning every few days. Ensure the top 2 inches of soil are adequately irrigated. The key is to keep the soil moist, but not waterlogged. During the fruiting phase of growth, water more often, potentially daily depending on the temperature. If you overwinter plants in containers, ensure they’re watered every other week as they lie dormant. Drip or sub-irrigation is best for the shallow root system.

Soil

Growing ornamental peppers requires rich, loamy, well-drained soil. Rich soil ensures a good yield of spicy peppers. Poor soils will support the life of the plant, but lessen yields. Amend your soil with compost and manure to provide nutrient richness, and incorporate agricultural sand to promote drainage. Basic potting mixes generally contain good soil for growing these peppers. They prefer a pH of 6.0 to 6.8.

Fertilizing

Numex Easter
A top-down look at Numex Easter. Source: F. D. Richards

A good slow-release fertilizer applied at a frequency of about two weeks at a time up to flowering will help produce healthy peppers. Use a 5-10-10 fertilizer to promote rapid growth of flowers and fruit. When the fruit begin to form, add more fertilizer around the base of the plants. Then about eight weeks later, apply again in the same manner. There’s no need to fertilize after that – at least not until the following spring for overwintered peppers. 

Pruning

The only reason to prune ornamental peppers is to attain the desired shape, and remove diseased or damaged leaves. Never trim flowering stems, but feel free to trim stems after they grow to 6 to 8 inches to promote a bushier appearance. The increase in leaves will also assist in producing healthier fruit. If you plan to overwinter the plant, cut it a few inches above the ground in late fall. Then cover it with mulch to retain moisture in dormancy. 

Propagation

There are two ways to propagate ornamental peppers: by seed, and by cuttings. To grow new plants from seed, simply extract seeds from a healthy pepper. Then place them in a mason jar and cover them with water. Cover the jar, and place it out of direct sunlight. Stir the seeds daily, and keep them in the jar for 4 to 7 days. Strain the seeds from the water and dry them on a paper towel or cheesecloth. Plant the seeds on the surface of the soil to ¼ inch deep in a container with drainage holes and a mix of rich, well-draining soil.

Place the container on a warming mat that is set to 70 to 80 degrees. Affix fluorescent lights near the plants. They’ll sprout in one week. Wait until each of the young plants is 4 to 6 inches tall. They then can be grown indoors in a sunny windowsill, hanging baskets outdoors, or planted in the earth at the beginning of the growing season when the soil temperature is at least 70 degrees. 

If you have other ornamentals, try snipping 5 inches of a healthy plant stem, and take off the bottom 2 to 3 inches of leaves. Then dip them in rooting hormone, and dig holes in starter pots. Place the stem in the hole, and ensure it is secured well in place. Then put the cutting on a heating mat under fluorescent bulbs, and keep the soil moist. In 8 weeks or so, the young plants should be ready for transplanting in a container in a sunny window, or outdoors. Because the plants spread widely, relegate one plant per container. 

Troubleshooting

Black Pearl ornamental peppers
Black Pearl ornamental peppers look more like berries than peppers. Source: drainhook

As the hot peppers grow, feel free to harvest them if you want to use them for food or hot pepper sprays. If you’re having some issues with them, don’t fret! They’re easy-going plants that can deal with a little troubleshooting from time to time. 

Growing Problems

If you planted your ornamental peppers in a pot or plot with little organic matter and poor soil, they may not produce flowers and develop fruit. To remediate this, dig a small trench around the base of the plant and add in compost, manure, and sand for drainage. Fertilizer applied in two-week intervals up to flowering will promote bright healthy fruit too.

If you planted your peppers too deep, they may have drainage issues. Attempt to lift them from the ground by unearthing them and then planting them higher. Mound soil around the base for good drainage. Green droopy leaves indicate underwatering.

Yellow droopy leaves indicate overwatering or a nutrient deficiency. Add more water where necessary, and cut back if the top two inches of the soil is still moist. Fertilizers and adequate amounts of organic matter in the soil promote proper nutrient uptake.

Pests

Aphids are insect pests that feast on the leaves and stems of ornamental peppers and suck the plant matter from within. Check for these pear-shaped insects on leaf nodes and growth tips regularly, as they can cause defoliation and stress to your ornamental pepper plant. A strong stream of water knocks them off the plant and prevents them from feeding further. Insecticidal soap sprays or neem oil also keep them off the plant. Spray in the morning before the sun has gotten high in the sky. Reapply every few days until they’re gone.  

Mites are small congregating insects that also feed on plant matter, but they don’t discriminate as aphids do. The kind that eat ornamental peppers, spider mites, spin webs around the plant in late stages. Wipe the entire plant with a cloth dipped in isopropyl alcohol to kill the mites on the plant. Do this before the warmth of the day begins. Use insecticidal soap in the same manner as you would for aphids if they persist. 

Thrips (yet another plant matter feeder) look like small grains of rice in their nymph stage and gain wings in their adult stage. The adult females cut holes in leaves and deposit eggs therein. Then nymphs emerge to continue feeding. Leaves become scarred, and defoliation can occur. Tap the plant with a piece of cardstock below to see if tiny thrips are present. If so, apply either neem oil or insecticidal soap to eliminate the thrips. Pyrethrin sprays also kill them if you have severe outbreaks. Apply these early in the day every 7 to 10 days until the problem ceases.

Diseases

Botrytis is one of those fungal diseases that causes leaf spots, stem canker, and damping-off in succession. In leaf spots, gray conidia develop that represent the sporification stage of the fungus. At this point, leaf spots are necrotic and can result in the total death of a plant. Prune off infected plant parts before they spread spores. Destroy the infected material. Apply botrytis-specific fungicides in spray form to the plant early in the day. Follow the directions on the bottle to reapply as needed. 

Pythium root rot occurs when a water mold develops in the soil around the plant and spreads to the roots where the mold feeds. It prevents healthy root growth. An affected pepper plant will have much smaller roots. To prevent it, do not overwater your plants, as this can provide the right conditions for the development of this water mold. The affected peppers may not recover. Remove severely damaged plants as soon as you’re aware of the infection, and dispose of them. Do not compost them to prevent spreading the Pythium water mold.

Frequently Asked Questions

Bolivian Rainbow ornamental peppers after harvest
Bolivian Rainbow peppers are truly a rainbow of colors. Source: wormwould

Q: Are ornamental peppers edible?

A: Yes! While they aren’t bred for flavor, they do pack a spicy punch. 

Q: How long do ornamental peppers last?

A: Some remain throughout the season, while others don’t last as long. This is dependent on the variety you choose. 

Q: What can I do with ornamental peppers?

A: You can look at them because they’re gorgeous, colorful plants! Incorporate them anywhere a bang of spice needs to go. 

Q: Will ornamental peppers come back?

A: If they’re overwintered or adequately mulched in temperate regions, they will!

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