Peppers don't have to be just green and bell shaped and relegated to the supermarket shelf or home garden plot. This genus of plants has the genetic potential to provide a wide array of possibilities for the kitchen and the ornamental garden and sometimes both at once.
Research on peppers from the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) is being featured from June to November in an exhibit called “A Pepper for Every Pot” at the U.S. Botanic Gardens in Washington, D.C. This exhibit explores the diversity of peppers, including recently introduced varieties, and celebrates peppers’ beauty, flavors and nutritional benefits.
Among new pepper varieties that ARS has already developed are Tangerine Dream and Black Pearl. Tangerine Dream is a sweet, edible ornamental pepper that produces small orange banana-shaped fruit on a prostrate plant. Black Pearl, an All America Selections award winner, offers gardeners a new dark choice: black leaves and shiny black fruit that ripen to bright scarlet. Both varieties are commercially available.
The pretty Black Pearl pepper can also serve as a hot pepper for the kitchen, making it a dual purpose pepper for today's smaller urban gardens.
The pod-type pepper genus—Capsicum—is native to the Western hemisphere and figured strongly in the Aztec, Mayan and Incan cultures, second only in importance to maize. Today, peppers are just as likely to show off in flower gardens as in vegetable gardens. Ornamental peppers have become a profitable crop for commercial growers and retailers. The ornamental plant market is worth nearly $5 billion in the United States each year and specialty peppers could capture a larger portion of those dollars.
ARS plant geneticists John Stommel and Robert Griesbach were drawn to the idea of developing new colorful ornamentals for the garden and the kitchen because considerable diversity exists in the Capsicum genus for fruit and leaf shape, size and color as well as plant habit.
Stommel is with the Genetic Improvement of Fruits and Vegetables Laboratory and Griesbach is with the Floral and Nursery Plants Research Unit, both part of the ARS Henry A. Wallace Beltsville Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville, MD.
ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.
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