Hot peppers: edible and ornamental!

By L. A. Jackson

Habanero PepperWant to add visual and literal sizzle to your garden this year? Include hot peppers. These popular plants have become staples in many vegetable gardens because, even with heat levels that, in some, seem to approach thermonuclear, it can’t be denied that hot peppers will certainly spice up dull meals at dinner time.

But with such a diversity of shapes, sizes and especially colors, it seems a shame to confine hot peppers to just the veggie patch. Many of these ­peppers are not only very ornamental, but their colorful fruits are abundant as well as persistent. This means they are ideal plants to add extra eye-appeal to just about any landscape setting. In addition, the usual compact size of these annuals makes them excellent companion plants for flower borders and prime candidates for container gardens.

Need examples? Think of the long, bright yellow Hungarian wax peppers, or the squat, crinkled, outrageously hot Habanero, glowing in simmering shades of orange or red, mixing it up with purple basil or a dark-leaf sun coleus. Nice contrast, yes?

There are even hot peppers that ­create their own contrast. As Serrano and Jalapeno peppers ripen, they become a pleasing visual melody of shiny young green and mature red fruit. Not to be outdone, the Tabasco pepper sports a sassy coat of pale green, yellow, orange and red as its fruits develop in different stages.

Some hot peppers are designated as “ornamental,” meaning that, although edible, they were bred more for looks than taste. Many show off multi­colored fruit, making them automatic focal points in the landscape. A good example is ‘Explosive Ember’ with red, orange and purple fruit all ­competing for attention on the same plant and nicely flaunted on a background ­canvas of purple-tinted foliage. Other multicolored ornamental pepper showoffs include ‘Marbles’, ‘Sangria’, ‘Prairie Fire’, ‘Aurora’, ‘NuMex Twilight,’ and ‘Bolivian Rainbow.’

Another eye-catching ­ornamental pepper to consider is the dusky, ­mysterious ‘Black Pearl,’ with its deep purple leaves and dark, ink-hued fruit, which would make interesting counter colors in a bed of white or pastel-flowering annuals. The silvery leaves of artemisia would also bounce boldly off ‘Black Pearl.’

Two to three weeks after the last average frost date, or when the soil temperature rises to around 65 degrees F, is a good time to plant hot peppers. The more sun they receive, the better, but also make sure plants are placed in well-worked, enriched soil.

Since hot peppers are heat ­worshipers, a good way to get young plants off to a fast start is to cover the ground around them with a sheet of black plastic, which will absorb and trap warmth from the sun. Ideally, this covering should be in place two weeks or longer before hot peppers are planted.

Be sure to poke holes in the plastic to allow water to reach the root zone. And when the summer really begins to simmer, adding a few inches of organic mulch over the covering will not only help even out the peppers’ supply of moisture over the growing season, but it will also cut down on competition from weeds.

Any other ornamental or vegetable that is going to be included with hot peppers to complement their good looks can be added by simply cutting an “X” through the black plastic and setting the plant in the soil.

One final note: If hot peppers are to be interplanted with standard ornamentals, and you are also going to use them in the kitchen, be sure not to spray the fruits with any pesticides that haven’t been cleared for ­vegetables.

Hot Pepper Sources

★ Pepper Gal, Ft. Lauderdale, FL (

★ The Chile Pepper Institute, Las Cruces, NM (

★ Pepper Joe’s, Myrtle Beach, SC (

★ The Chile Woman, Bloomington, IN (


L.A. Jackson has been a garden editor, lecturer and writer for over 20 years and has led many tours overseas through the great gardens of Europe. He lives in North Carolina.