By Ellen Barcel
You may have seen ornamental pepper plants in the stores this time of year. NuMex Easter Ornamental Pepper (Capsicum anuum) is a neat plant for Easter decorating. The plant look like a bouquet of peppers above the dense greenery. This is a small plant, generally about 8 inches high and 10 inches wide, making it ideal as a hostess gift or a table centerpiece. It produces beautifully colored ornamental peppers (purple, cream, yellow and orange).
Yes, it can be grown from seed, but you won’t have a plant ready for this Easter. The ornamental pepper blooms and produces peppers all summer long, maturing in 72 days. While there are many varieties of peppers that are available as heirloom plants, the NuMex Easter is a hybrid. Can you save the seeds to grow in future? You can try it, but as with all hybrids, it’s unlikely that the plants will breed true. Buy the hybrid seeds if you want to grow this one in your garden or the plants from a nursery.
The name Easter pepper came from the pastel color of the peppers when they first appear on the plant. The plant was bred by the New Mexico State University’s Chili Pepper Institute — it also developed a Valentine’s Day pepper (red and white), a St. Patrick’s Day pepper (green) and a Halloween pepper (orange and black) among many others.
This is a great plant for Long Island considering it tolerates heat, humidity and drought. Tiny white flowers form first on the plant to be followed by the brightly colored peppers. Tidy up the plant periodically by removing old, dried peppers and there’s more of a chance of new peppers forming.
Like tomatoes, a close relative, pepper plants like sun. A soil pH of 6.0 or above provides optimal growing conditions, so yes, you probably need to lime your soil if growing them in the ground. If you are growing your peppers in a container and you’ve bought it already growing, the soil is probably just fine.
Is the Easter pepper edible? Different authorities have different opinions. Some say it’s purely an ornamental plant with taste varying from plant to plant. Other authorities, including the NMU say yes, it is edible but extremely hot. In any event, do not consume peppers from the plants grown commercially as ornamentals because you won’t know what kind of chemicals have been used on them.
This is also true of plants like potato vines. Yes, you sometimes get sweet potatoes from the vines in fall, but again, you don’t know what chemicals have been used by the grower, since they are not intended for human consumption. If you want peppers, or sweet potatoes, to eat, select varieties and plants that are grown specifically for human consumption. Besides unwanted chemicals, these plants have been selected for various qualities like taste, time to maturity, keeping quality and highest yield.
The NuMex Easter pepper plants are not frost tolerant, so, if growing them outdoors over the summer, you need to either treat them as an annual or bring them indoors for the winter. According to NMU, chili plants grown indoors in a sunny location and given optimal care can last for 10 or more years.
The plants are available locally usually where ornamental or house plants are sold. Seeds are available from a number of growers, but the seeds of this ornamental as well as many others developed at NMU are available from the Chili Pepper Institute itself (www.chile.nmsu.edu).
Looking for other Easter plants? Consider the Easter cactus — similar to the Christmas cactus but it blooms in spring — as well as a pot of spring flowering bulbs for this time of year. Remember, Easter lilies are highly toxic to cats. So, if you have cats either don’t bring Easter lilies into the house or make sure that the plants are in a room that the cats can’t get into. Not only is the plant toxic but the water that the cut flowers are in can be dangerous for them as well. Happy spring!
Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.