A Peck of Pretty Peppers
Peppers are remarkable vegetables. They can be sweet or spicy, as small as your thumb or bigger than your hand—and they come in nearly every color of the rainbow.
In the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Vegetable Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, scientists John Stommel and Robert Griesbach have been breeding ornamental peppers since 1991. In that time, they've developed a bunch of colorful peppers that are as tasty as they are beautiful.
One of their peppers is called Tangerine Dream. Tangerine Dream is a sweet, edible pepper with bright-green leaves and orange fruit shaped like tiny bananas. Another pepper, Black Pearl, has shiny, black leaves and glossy-black fruit that ripen from black to red.
Stommel and Griesbach have developed pepper cultivars with a variety of different traits. One has spreading, black foliage and colorful, upright peppers with a spicy flavor. Another is exceptionally tall, growing as high as three feet. A third has black foliage and orange, pumpkin-shaped fruit.
So how do they do it? Step one, Stommel says, is to identify which traits, or characteristics, you want. Do you want the plant to be big or small? What size, color and shape do you want the leaves to be? What do you want the fruit to look like? Creating a new plant is similar to making a recipe. You might know you want to make cookies, but before you start to bake, you need to decide what kind of cookies you want to eat. Then you decide what ingredients you'll need.
Peppers are members of the Capsicum genus, which includes plant types with a lot of variety, so breeders have a lot of options when they decide what kind of pepper they want.
“Only your imagination is limiting,” Griesbach says.
After breeders identify the characteristics they want, they find plants that have those characteristics to be parents. For example, if they want a short plant with black leaves and red fruit, they'll need short plants, and plants with black leaves, and plants with red fruit. Then they cross—or breed—those parent plants until they get offspring that have all three characteristics.
But just like people, peppers don't always look like their parents. And sometimes, they look more like one than the other. You won't get a short plant with green leaves every time you cross a short plant and a green-leaf plant, so breeders have to keep crossing the plants until they get all of the characteristics they want. Making a new pepper takes longer than whipping up a batch of cookies. In fact, breeding a new cultivar can take 10 to 15 years.
So far we've only discussed aesthetic characteristics—what the plant looks like. But scientists breed for a lot of different traits. They may try to make a plant that's more nutritious, or one that can resist diseases. For example, the Black Pearl pepper that Stommel and Griesbach developed is really hardy. It can grow in a variety of climates, from New England to California, and it resists attacks from many insects and fungi.
Peppers aren't the only crop ARS researchers are breeding. Projects like these are constantly improving the crops we rely on every day—making foods that are more nutritious, easier to grow and easier to cook with.
Aesthetic: [es-THET-ic] Related to beauty.
—By Laura McGinnis, Agricultural Research Service