Splashy, colorful ornamental peppers add dazzling bursts of red, purple, yellow, orange, black, or white to the garden. And many cultivars display upright fruits that change color as they mature.
While the species Capsicum annuum includes numerous pepper types that are commonly used in the kitchen, such as C. annuum ‘Jalapeño,’ this article will focus on the varieties and cultivars that are grown mainly as ornamentals – bushy, leafy plants that produce eye-catching clumps of vivid fruits.
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Ornamental peppers are technically edible, but are not considered particularly tasty. Many are also quite high on the Scoville scale, meaning they can be eye-wateringly spicy. See our full guide to growing hot peppers for more information.
Despite having “annum” – Latin for “annual” – in their name, these plants are not true annuals. They are frost-intolerant perennials, and native to southern North America and northern South America.
In the United States, they are hardy only in Zones 9b through 11. In most of the country, these plants are grown outdoors as annuals, or grown in containers and brought indoors to overwinter.
These plants produce small flowers – with color that varies by type – beginning in May, followed by peppers that remain on the plant until the first frost.
Let’s learn more!
What You’ll Learn
Some gardeners have had luck propagating ornamental peppers from cuttings, but this can be tricky.
Starting from seed or, better still, purchasing potted plants or seedlings from a nursery, are the best – and quickest – ways to get started.
You’ll want to start seeds indoors in a rich potting soil 10 to 12 weeks before your expected last frost date. Plant seeds 1/8 inch deep and keep the soil moist but not waterlogged.
Place the seed trays or pots in a warm place or on a warming mat set at 75°F. They need temps of 75 to 80°F to germinate, which typically takes about two weeks.
Being tropical plants, chilis like a lot of light.
A sunny windowsill can be sufficient, but if there are trees or fences obstructing the light, you might want to consider using grow lights to get them off to a good start.
Position your lights above the tiny plants once the seeds have germinated.
After about eight weeks of growth, they are ready to be transplanted outdoors – provided all risk of frost has passed – or to a larger pot.
If you want to try your hand at propagating ornamental peppers from cuttings, choose a healthy plant and trim off any dead or dying foliage.
Use a clean garden knife or sharp pruners to cut a five-inch-long stem, making sure that it has at least two leaf nodes. These are small swellings on the stem that will eventually sprout new leaves.
Cut on a diagonal to maximize the surface area to allow for greater water absorption, the way you would when trimming flowers in a cut arrangement.
Strip the leaves from the bottom two to three inches of the cutting, and dip it in a powdered rooting medium.
Insert a pencil into a small pot containing well-draining potting soil with drainage holes, and remove it to create a hole for planting. Place the cutting into the hole you created.
Water, and place the cutting in a warm location. Do not allow the potting medium to dry out – keep it well watered and moist.
Transplant when your cutting has put on a few inches of growth, after about eight weeks.
How to Grow
Once your cuttings or seedlings are a few inches tall, they’ll be ready for transplanting either into containers or into your garden.
But first, remember they’ve been growing in an indoor environment and will need to adapt gradually to life outdoors.
This process is known as “hardening off” and involves putting your young chilis outside for a few hours a day, gradually increasing the time that they spend outdoors.
To begin with, place them in a sheltered spot where they won’t be buffeted by the wind.
After a week or two of keeping them indoors at night (and during inclement weather) and outdoors during the day, they should be acclimated to life in the garden.
Ornamental peppers like full sun, but in particularly hot parts of the country, they will tolerate partial shade, too.
If you’re overwintering your plant indoors, be sure to place it near a sunny window.
These plants prefer a temperature range of 55 to 65°F at night and 70 to 80°F during the day.
They like well-draining soil that’s fairly rich in organic matter. If you’re transplanting into containers, place some drainage material such as gravel in the bottom of the pot.
The size of the container will depend on whether it’ll be one component in a grouping of other ornamentals, or planted on its own.
When you’re transplanting or repotting, make sure to keep the root ball intact to prevent damaging it, and water in well. In the garden, they’ll need one to two inches of water per week.
Water container-grown plants when the top half to one inch of soil has completely dried out, and add enough water so that it drains out of the holes in the bottom of the pot.
Fertilize pepper plants with a balanced fertilizer once or twice during the summer.
- Peppers appreciate fertile, well-draining soil.
- If it’s really hot out, you might need to water plants more often, but don’t allow them to become waterlogged.
- Add mulch within the growing area to retain water and discourage weeds.
Pruning and Maintenance
You can prune these plants if you want to encourage a more compact form, but pruning isn’t necessary. You can pinch the growth tips if you want to promote a more bushy plant.
To keep them looking their decorative best, be sure to remove any dead or dying foliage.
You can trim off about a half an inch of new growth from the main stem and side stems when they are about four to six inches long. Don’t trim any stems that have started flowering.
If you’re growing them in a container, you’ll likely need to repot every couple of years as the plant grows.
Snip off chilis when they start to dry out.
Cultivars to Select
From bright, vivid colors to moody dark hues, there are numerous varieties to choose from.
Liven up your patio containers with cheerful reds and purples, or add a black-leafed variety for contrast. Here are a few of my favorite ornamental pepper cultivars:
This unusual plant produces black leaves when it is grown in direct sun.
In young plants and those grown in shady spots, the leaves remain dark green. Growing to around 18 inches tall, it produces small peppers that start out black and then turn bright red when mature.
Find packets of 100 ‘Black Pearl’ seeds at True Leaf Market.
This heirloom variety grows up to three feet tall and produces large yields of three-quarter-inch-long peppers that are quite spicy.
The fruits morph from purple to light yellow to orange, and then to red, as they mature. The stems and leaves have a purple tint and the flowers are purple.
Grow your own ‘Bolivian Rainbow’ plants with these packets of 25 seeds, available via Amazon.
This type produces two- to two-and-a-half-inch blunt-nosed peppers that cycle through greenish yellow to orange and then to dark red.
The compact plants grow to nine to 10 inches tall and spread to about 14 inches. Unlike many ornamentals, ‘Chilly Chili’ is not spicy.
Get a packet of 100 ‘Chilly Chili’ seeds at True Leaf Market.
This attractive variety is an heirloom type from Mexico. It produces three-quarter-inch spicy, roundish fruit that matures from green to purple-blue to peach to bright red.
The young fruit is very spicy, but as it matures, the flavor becomes milder. The green leaves are purple-tinged at the edges.
The plant grows from 12 to 18 inches tall and six to 10 inches wide.
The upright, twisty appearance of this plant’s narrow, two- to two-and-a-half-inch fruits is reminiscent of the infamous monster in Greek mythology whose crown sported venomous snakes in place of hair.
These peppers are more sweet than spicy, and are borne on compact plants that grow six to 10 inches tall and about as wide. The fruits mature from ivory white to shades of yellow and orange before turning bright red.
This eight to 10-inch tall plant produces pastel-colored peppers in lavender, cream, pale yellow, and pale orange against a background of dark green leaves.
‘NuMex Easter’ was an All-America Selections Bedding Plant Winner in 2014, and as such, is particularly useful as a bedding plant.
You can order a packet of 10 seeds from Park Seeds via Amazon.
This bright green plant grows to about a foot tall and produces conical orange peppers in summer and fall, amongst bushy foliage.
Find a packet of seeds for ‘Orange Wonder’ at Eden Brothers.
You’ll get lots of fruits on this plant, which grows to be about 12 inches tall and as wide as 18 inches.
The two- to three-inch fruits start out purple, then change to orange and finally to red.
The chilies produced by ‘Sangria’ are not spicy, so this plant may be a good choice for households with curious young children who might be tempted to take a bite.
You can find packets of 25 seeds from Seedsown, available via Amazon.
Managing Pests and Disease
Ornamental peppers may fall prey to a few insect pests, as well as a couple of diseases.
A few common bugs can pester these plants, and insect damage can be unsightly when you’re growing them for decorative purposes.
This is usually not much of an issue indoors, but keep an eye out if your pots are on patios, or in planters by the front door.
Soft-bodied aphids enjoy sucking fluids from a wide variety of plants, and ornamental peppers are no exception. These small, pear-shaped insects cause plants to become stunted and deformed.
Blast them off with water, or use an insecticidal soap to kill them.
“Cutworm” is a generic name applied to the larvae of a number of moth species.
They are usually brown or gray and often mottled. They do their damage by cutting into the base of plant stems. They also like to gnaw on roots.
Get rid of these pests by sprinkling diatomaceous earth around your plants.
These small, white pests are the larvae of a fly that lays its eggs under the skin of peppers.
The larvae snack on the inside of the peppers, damaging them by stunting their growth. You can usually detect the presence of pepper maggots by the tiny “stings” they leave in the skins of the fruit.
Use sticky traps to catch the adults before they have a chance to lay their eggs.
These pests are small white flies that suck out plant juices, causing deformed plants. Control these pests with insecticidal soap or sticky traps.
A couple of diseases can plague ornamental pepper plants.
One of the hazards of growing them ornamentally is that you may be inclined to group them closer together than you would your crop plants, inhibiting airflow. Keep your plants looking fresh by removing any damaged or dying fruits and foliage.
Plants infected by mosaic virus will exhibit white, green, or yellow spots, stripes, or streaks on their foliage. You may also see curled or wrinkled leaves, and the plant’s growth may be stunted.
This virus can be spread by aphids, so prevent it by keeping those pests in check.
Affected plants cannot be cured and must be pulled up and destroyed. Prevent viruses by practicing clean gardening practices such as keeping the growing area free of weeds and debris, using clean tools, and keeping pests at bay.
This disease is caused by any of six species of fungi that live in the soil and enter a plant via the roots. The disease manifests in wilted plants, and discolored and curled leaves.
Affected plants must be pulled up and destroyed. Contaminated soil may be cured via solarization, a process of heating up the soil to kill the fungus.
To do this, clear the soil of plants and debris, then till or dig up the soil. In the hottest part of the summer, wet the soil thoroughly, and cover the area with a clear plastic tarp.
Bury the edges of the tarp to trap the heat. Leave the plastic in place for 4 to 6 weeks, and then remove it.
Many gardeners enjoy growing ornamental peppers in containers for their decorative value, both outdoors and indoors.
These colorful plants make attractive specimens in the landscape, and also look spectacular in mass plantings.
Shorter varieties make a beautiful addition to borders.
Incidentally, small pots of ornamental peppers, wrapped in colorful cellophane and tied with a bow, are often given as gifts at Christmastime.
Some folks might know them as “Christmas peppers” because of this tradition.
If Not Delicious, Certainly Beautiful
Colorfully attractive and sometimes – but not always – tasty, ornamental peppers add spectacular interest to the landscape, or a pop of brilliance to a sunny spot indoors.
And all that beauty comes with relatively little effort. They do appreciate compost-rich soil and a good amount of water, but aside from those requirements, you won’t spend a lot of time worrying over these beauties.
Keep an eye out for a few pests, and that’s about it! You’ll enjoy a brilliant show of colorful fruit for weeks on end.
Have you grown ornamental peppers? Do you grow them in the landscape, or in containers? Share your tips in the comments section below.
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