Ornamental hot peppers 101: trending varieties offer vivid colors, unique foliage

Features - Varieties

Edible peppers grown in the greenhouse will always have their place, but keep in mind that ornamental varieties can really set off a garden or arrangement when used correctly.

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June 30, 2021

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Landscape Prescriptions by MD Ornamental hot peppers (Capsicum sp.) and their exciting use throughout the landscape are finally entering the lexicon of most gardeners. The contributions of colorful fruits in white, cream, yellow, orange, red, purple and black are significant, particularly later in the season as the fruits ripen up over the hot summer months. Many varieties will go through a colorful transition with multiple colors of fruiting on the same plant.

The ornamental impact of these increasingly vivid fruits can rival any bedding plant late in summer. Most ornamental hot peppers have some common traits which include shorter stature, the fruits are frequently staged and held above the foliage and, of course, the colorful fruiting show that is exceptional until the hardest of frost.

Why ornamental peppers?

It is important to note that while “ornamental hot peppers” are edible, they are not bred for culinary value and frequently lack the depth of taste that many traditional hot pepper varieties provide in terms of a flavor profile. Most ornamental hot peppers have muted taste, but a whole lot of heat.

With limited to no culinary history, most of the ornamental hot peppers haven’t been researched for Scoville heat units (SHU) that reflect the heat of these fruits. Be wary of the unknown. Keep in mind that some people have severe allergic reactions in relation to eating, handling or even being near hot peppers in the garden.

It is important to also note that some of our most common hot peppers (i.e. ‘Jalapeno’, ‘Tabasco’, ‘Scotch Bonnet’, etc.) are also beautiful when the fruits transition to more intense color as they ripen.

A feature of merit that is often overlooked in the category of ornamental hot peppers is the contribution of ornamental foliage. As with any type of plant, having multiple features of interest diversifies the ornamental contributions of the plant, adds additional or lengthier interest and in the case of ornamental foliage, may become the primary feature of interest.

With ornamental hot peppers becoming so popular in bedding schemes, container arrangements, later season displays and simply for general use, the contribution of ornamental foliage broadens the opportunity for using these plants in showy and imaginative combinations.

Classification and deployment

Ornamental foliage for these hot peppers falls into some basic categories based on my observations. There are those that have a white to cream variegation on the leaves. Some varieties will have a variegation that includes hints of violet and purple. Some of my personal favorite selections have near black foliage throughout the growing season. The last category are those selections that have foliage that deepens to a black coloration in late summer at the time when the fruiting show is at peak.

We’ll examine some selections in each of those categories further in the article.

In terms of using these plants in the landscape, certainly evaluating the merit of the colorful fruits in the landscape is a primary consideration. While most traditional ornamental hot peppers aren’t offering much interest in terms of fruit coloration until later in the summer, those with colorful foliage are immediate contributors to the composition.

For example, those selections with near black foliage offer a depth of richness even prior to the fruiting which then offers interest while using that same foliage as a backdrop or foil for the ripening fruits. Selections with variegated foliage will attract the eye over the entire growing season and become a nice backdrop for colorful, ripening fruits. Ornamental hot peppers at peak fruit coloration are becoming hot sellers in late summer as they not only provide instant, vivid color but limitless potential as late season “filler” in garden beds and later season container arrangements.

Ornamental hot peppers in general really need full sun locations and will thrive in the bed, border or container. Drainage is vital and they don’t mind rich or amended soils. Some fertilization may be in order, particularly for container specimens and while these peppers all have some degree of drought tolerance and like it hot, don’t let them dry out. Keep up with a watering regime that accommodates a moist and well-drained situation.

Planting any sort of pepper out in the garden shouldn’t occur until the soil temperatures are minimally 70°F and the evening temperatures are nearing 60°F on average. There is danger in planting peppers too early with damp and cool soils offering little incentive for the peppers to actively establish or grow. If sowing seeds of select varieties, target your sowing 10-12 weeks in advance of the last frost date in your area and keep seedlings happy and safe until planting in a warming soil in their final destination.

And keep in mind that peppers of all kinds have a wide range of potential insect and disease issues that can be addressed as needed, although healthy specimens will be the least likely to show evidence of being compromised and needing that additional TLC.

Here are a few of my favorite ornamental pepper varieties available today:

White/cream variegated ornamental hot peppers

I’m personally a big fan of variegation in any type of plant. While we might be selecting certain plants for interesting form, flowers, fall color, etc., having the additional contribution of variegation just adds to the extended show. That’s certainly the case with variegated ornamental hot peppers as well.

Some great selections with the white/cream contribution include Uchu (9 inches), ‘Sparkler’ (18 inches) and the classic selection ‘Fish’ (24 inches). It’s interesting to note that in some instances, the variegation extends to the fruits as well. This is the case with both ‘Sparkler’ and ‘Fish’. This variegation, while varying in prominence, is still visible throughout the color transition of the fruits. All of these selections have a fruiting transition from cream to yellow, orange and finally red with multiple colors on display depending on the maturity of separate fruits.

If you are interested in variegated sweet pepper selections, look for ‘Confetti’ or ‘Candy Cane Red’ which are both mini-bell selections with impressive variegation of foliage and fruits.

‘Fish’ is a classic ornamental pepper variety offering a white/cream variegation that also extends to the fruits.
All photos courtesy of Mark Dwyer
‘Sparkler’ brings variegation to the fruiting bodies as well, providing multiple color changes throughout the season.

Violet/purple variegated ornamental hot peppers

For simply the sheer value of foliage contribution, these selections are excellent. I’ve grown ‘Purple Flash’ ornamental hot pepper for over 20 years and never tire of the reliable, variable, purple variegation seen throughout the foliage with no two leaves being identical.

Reaching 15 inches in height, this is truly a bedding plant known for prominent foliage as the fruits are jet-black, quite small and truly a secondary asset to the foliage.

The variety ‘Tricolor Variegata’ (18 inches) is another classic selection with similar splashes of purple and cream over the foliage. However, the thin, long fruits of this selection become more prominent as they transition from deep purple to bright red.

Dark foliage ornamental hot peppers

My personal favorite ornamental hot pepper is the variety ‘Black Pearl’ which displays near-black foliage in full sun. The fruits emerge a glossy black and age to a bright red late in the season. This 2006 All-America Selections (AAS) winner reaches 24 inches in height and offers a rich, bold color with and without the fruiting contribution.

Additional AAS winners with black foliage and similar impact include ‘Black Olive’ (18 inches), ‘Black Hawk’ (12 inches) and Onyx Red (9 inches). All of these selections have the same colorful fruit transition from glossy black to bright red.

The variety ‘Count Dracula’ (16 inches) was another favorite with a black, matte-finish foliage contribution with short, elongated fruiting that also goes from black to red. Full sun is absolutely necessary to get the deepest black foliage coloration on all of these selections. Emerging foliage, while having hints of green, will all deepen and darken in full sun during the hot summer months.

Dark foliage ornamental pepper varieties, like the award-winning ‘Black Pearl’ selection above, adds a stark contrast to colorful companion plants in the garden.

Ornamental hot peppers with darkening foliage

This might seem like an odd category when considering the topic of ornamental foliage on these hot pepper selections. However, these two varieties in particular have an interesting foliage transformation from dark green with maroon overtones in the summer to a very deep black when the fruits are aging to their best coloration. Seek out both ‘Explosive Ember’ (12 inches) and ‘Midnight Fire’ (14 inches) for this feature along with fruits aging from glossy purple to a deep red with many colors in between that transitioning gradation of coloration. ‘Explosive Ember’ actually has a “cross-over” audience for culinary use with the peppers having decent flavor and heat of a cayenne pepper.