Ornamental peppers are sure to add a splash of color to your garden. You can use them as a colorful and unique focal point or mix them into your landscape.
Equally as good in a container garden as in the ground, you get to pick from a wide range of colors: reds, oranges, yellows, and purples with lots of in-between shades. Believe it or not, you can even get ornamental peppers that are white or black.
If you’re ready to add these colorful and showy plants to your garden, here’s how to grow and care for ornamental peppers.
What Are Ornamental Peppers?
Ornamental peppers (Capsicum anuum) are real peppers that are grown for their brilliant display rather than for their flavor or to use as food.
Unlike many ornamental plants that are celebrated for their flowers, these pepper plants are valued for their fruit that appears in mid to late summer. The fruits are small and vivid, usually growing straight up into the air.
Most varieties bear fruit that starts out one color and gradually changes as they mature. This means you’ll have at least a bi-color display and often a rainbow effect.
Ornamental peppers are grown for their showy display of fruits, not for their flavor. There’s a wide variety of colors to choose from and plants are easy to care for.
Like other peppers, the ornamental ones are originally native to South and Central America. They’re typically grown as annuals but are hardy in USDA hardiness zones 9b-11.
Plants do produce flowers in early summer, but they aren’t very showy. Ornamental pepper plants come in varying sizes depending on the cultivar. They can be very compact and small or grow up to 3 feet tall.
Are They Edible?
Ornamental peppers are edible, but keep in mind that they aren’t grown for their flavor. If you want a great pepper taste, you’re better off growing a few normal hot or sweet pepper plants.
However, if you want to add a few to salsa or another recipe because of their brilliant color, you can definitely do that.
Depending on which varieties you choose to grow, the peppers themselves can be anywhere from mildly spicy to insanely spicy. It’s certainly worth researching what kind you have before taking a bite!
Ornamental Pepper Varieties
As mentioned, you have quite a wide range of choice when it comes to color, size, and even heat level.
There are plenty of varieties to choose from, some with longer fruits and others with shorter, Christmas bulb shaped fruits. Medusa is a cultivar that gets long, twisty peppers in shades of orange, yellow, and red.
Here are several great cultivars to consider:
- Bolivian Rainbow– This is a beautiful ornamental pepper cultivar and sure to be a standout. The fruits put on a show by changing from purple to yellow to orange and finally to red as they mature. Because they mature at different times, you’ll end up with all the colors at once. The leaves also have a purple tint, which is nice. Cayenne level heat.
- Medusa– This variety gets its name from the twisty appearance of the peppers (like the mythical Medusa’s hair). The fruits grow about 2.5 inches long and are abundant. They start out white and go through shades of orange and yellow before turning red. Plants are compact and great for small spaces and containers. Mildly spicy and a bit sweet.
- Black Pearl– A truly unique cultivar, Black Pearl would make a great Halloween plant. When grown in full sun, the leaves of this variety are black. Peppers are small and also start out black before maturing to a bright red that is a great contrast to the leaves. Cayenne level heat.
- NuMex Easter– This is another unique cultivar because the fruits go through a range of pastel colors rather than the usual bright hues. Fruits will range in color from lavender to pale yellow to cream to light orange. Leaves are dark green and plants only grow 8-10 inches in height. Cayenne level heat.
- Sangria– Sangria is a taller and bushier plant (12” x 18”) that would still work in pots but is more suited to the landscape. It produces lots of 2-3 inch long fruits that start out purple and change to orange then red. Mildly spicy.
Black ornamental peppers make a unique container or landscape plant. Some varieties, like Black Pearl, have black fruits and black leaves while others have black fruit and green leaves.
- Prairie Fire Pepper– True to its name, this cultivar has some of the spiciest peppers: ten times the heat of jalapeños! The fruits themselves resemble Christmas lights in both shape and color. You’ll get reds, oranges, purples, yellows, and creams. Great either in the garden or in containers. Caution: Very spicy!
How to Grow Ornamental Peppers
Ornamental peppers are easy to grow by starting seeds indoors or by buying plants from your local garden center.
Growing from Seed
Peppers typically get a slow start, so you’ll want to sow seeds indoors 10-12 weeks before you plant to transplant them outside. This will be a few weeks after your last frost when the soil has warmed.
Create little holes in each cell that are about ¼ inch deep. Drop one seed into each hole and cover all the seeds with more soil mix when you’re finished.
Water seeds gently and place the flats or trays somewhere warm so that seeds can germinate. Make sure you keep the soil moist during this time. You can use plastic domes over top of the flats to help with this.
Pepper seeds will germinate better if given a little bottom heat or kept in a warm room. If you like, you can grow the seedlings in peat pots that can be planted right into the ground.
Germination takes about two weeks. Because peppers like heat, using a warming mat or some other type of bottom heat at 75-80°F can improve germination rates, but it’s not absolutely necessary.
Once your seedlings have sprouted, remove the plastic domes if using and place the trays under grow lights (fluorescent lights work fine). Keep the lights positioned a few inches above the seedlings and give them about 12-16 hours of light and at least 8 hours of darkness.
Keep seedlings watered, but try to keep the leaves dry. Run a fan a few times a day to prevent damping off, a disease caused by overly wet conditions.
Once seedlings are a few inches tall, you can transplant them into 3-4 inch pots, and keep the pots under lights until you’re ready to plant outside.
Planting Ornamental Peppers
If you bought plants from a nursery or garden store, they are all ready to go in the ground when it’s time. If you started seeds indoors, you’ll want to harden off plants about a week before planting them.
Peppers are very sensitive to cold weather, so wait to plant until a few weeks after the last frost when soil temps have warmed considerably.
Pick a spot for your peppers that gets full sun and preferably has rich, well-drained soil. You can add compost or well rotted manure to your soil to improve fertility and drainage. If you have heavy clay soil, consider planting the peppers in raised beds or containers.
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Spacing will depend on the variety you have, but pepper plants typically need at least 1 foot of space between plants.
Dig holes for your plants that are slightly wider than the root ball. Gently loosen the roots of each plant before setting them in their holes. Then, fill around the roots with soil so that the top of the root ball is level with the ground and just covered with soil.
Water plants thoroughly and continue to give them regular water as they get established.
Growing in Containers
Ornamental peppers are perfect plants for a container garden. You can plant them in small to medium sized pots by themselves or add them to larger container arrangements.
Make sure the pots you choose have drainage holes in the bottom because peppers don’t like soggy soil. If they don’t, you can drill them yourself if the material allows. Take a square of old fabric and cover the holes to prevent your soil from washing out later.
Fill the pots with a good quality potting soil. Your peppers are going to need nutrients as they grow, so choose soil with a slow-release fertilizer added in or mix in some compost.
Many varieties of ornamental peppers are compact and make great container plants. You can plant them alone or mix in other decorative plants in warm or neutral colors.
Plant the containers and water in your new plants. Keep in mind that pots can dry out quickly in the heat and sun, so be sure to water often as the peppers get established.
Caring for Ornamental Peppers
Ornamental peppers are very low maintenance. They don’t like the soil to dry out but also don’t like being waterlogged either. You’ll need to give them water when the soil is almost dry.
You can put a light layer of mulch down around plants in your garden and/or in containers. This will help to keep moisture in the soil and also keeps weeds down. Leave a few inches between the stems of the plants and the mulch to prevent rotting.
Your peppers don’t absolutely need fertilizing (especially if you added compost already) but adding an all-purpose or 5-10-10 fertilizer every 4-6 weeks can encourage more fruiting.
You don’t need to worry about pruning your ornamental peppers at all, but you can cut off any dead or browning leaves to keep them looking decorative. You can also cut off the peppers when they start to dry out to encourage the plants to produce more fruit.
After they mature, the fruits will start to dry out on the plant. You can cut them off at this stage to encourage your plants to produce more fruit. Eat them if desired or add them to your compost pile.
Other than that, you can just enjoy the show they’ll put on for you all summer!
Although they are grown as annuals, ornamental peppers can be overwintered by bringing them indoors at the end of the growing season.
If your plants are in the garden, you’ll need to dig them up and put them in pots before the weather dips below 40°F. Be careful to dig around the root ball to get as much of the root system as you can.
Place the peppers in pots that are at least a little bigger than their root balls and fill in with potting soil. Because you don’t necessarily want the plants to grow during the winter, choose soil without any fertilizer.
If your plants are already in containers, you can either leave them in the ones they are in or transplant them to other containers that are easier to carry inside.
Keep the peppers by the sunniest window in your house over the winter and water them only when the soil is almost dry. They’ll need less water indoors since the conditions are milder. You can also trim a little off your peppers every month or so to keep them compact.
Ornamental peppers are easy to overwinter if you have enough space in your house and a sunny window for them to sit in. Bring pots in before temperatures get cold and take them back outside early summer.
Once planting time comes again, be sure you gradually accustom them to outdoor weather before returning them to your garden.
Pests and Problems
Oftentimes, ornamental peppers will have no problems with pests or diseases, but there are a few potential problems.
- Aphids– Aphids are small, pear-shaped insects that suck the fluid out of the leaves and stems of plants. A small number of them will not cause enough damage to harm your plants, but a large infestation is trouble. You can knock them off with a good blast from a garden hose or use an organic insecticidal soap.
- Blossom End Rot– This is caused by a lack of calcium uptake. Fruits will develop a large dark spot on the end that sinks in and can cause the fruit to rot. Bell peppers are more susceptible to this than ornamental peppers, but if it happens you can try adding calcium and cutting back on nitrogen fertilizer.
- Mosaic Virus– Often spread by aphids, this plant virus causes leaves to curl or wrinkle and become mottled. Growth will be stunted and the fruit may be affected as well. There is no way to cure plants, and any infected ones should be removed and disposed of immediately. Prevention includes disinfecting tools, keeping weeds away, and keeping aphids under control.
Peppers can get something called blossom end rot where a dark spot appears at the end of the pepper and starts rotting the fruit. Add calcium to the soil and reduce nitrogen if this is a problem.
- Sparse Fruiting– Too much nitrogen in the soil can cause plants to become very leafy and bushy with few flowers or fruit. This is an easy fix: Just use a fertilizer higher in phosphorus and potassium and low in nitrogen (for example, a 5-10-10 fertilizer).
The good news is that critters like deer and rabbits usually don’t like snacking on spicy peppers. If you have a variety with a good heat level, they should leave your plants alone.
What to Grow With Ornamental Peppers
Ornamental peppers look equally at home in a vegetable garden, in the landscape, and in contain arrangements.
You can plant them as a border around vegetable beds or mixed in with vegetables and herbs to give your garden a more decorative appearance. Companion plants like nasturtiums, basil, and rosemary can help repel aphids or divert them away from your peppers.
Many ornamental pepper varieties pair well with other heat and sun loving plants like zinnias, marigolds, cosmos, petunias, and cleome.
Wherever you plant them, these peppers are sure to make their presence known! And if you do want some peppers for eating, why not also grow some bell pepper plants?