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Photo: Midnight creeper pepper.
Midnight Creeper pepper. Photo courtesy of John Stommel, ARS.

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New Ornamental Peppers Heading to Market

By Stephanie Yao
March 16, 2009

Ornamental plant enthusiasts now have more pepper varieties to add to their gardens. The Agricultural Research Service (ARS) has entered into a license agreement with McCorkle Nurseries, in Dearing, Ga., for propagation and distribution of these eye-catching peppers.

The new plants, “Midnight Creeper” and “Solar Eclipse,” are the latest in a line of ornamental pepper varieties released by ARS. They were created by geneticist John Stommel of the ARS Genetic Improvement of Fruits and Vegetables Laboratory and Rob Griesbach, a former researcher with the ARS Floral and Nursery Plants Research Unit, both in Beltsville, Md.

Best used as bedding plants, Midnight Creeper and Solar Eclipse are particularly striking due to their dark purple to black coloring. Once a novelty, these colors are now standard elements to consider in garden design. Black foliage provides long-lasting color in short-season climates and year-round color in warmer climates.

Midnight Creeper has purple flowers and produces fruit that’s black when immature, but red when mature. Attractive in mass plantings as a dense ground cover, the plant is unique in that it grows outward instead of upward like other pepper plants. In contrast, Solar Eclipse is tall, bushy and prized for its striking black foliage, providing a novel foundation for garden designs. The plant produces very few flowers and fruit when grown under summer field conditions, contributing to its season-long usefulness.

Taste evaluations for Midnight Creeper and Solar Eclipse indicated that the fruit are “extremely hot” and “very hot,” respectively. However, because the plants are intended for ornamental use, Scoville ratings—measures used to verify a pepper’s pungency—were not determined.

Stommel and Griesbach’s research on ornamental peppers has dual benefits. The research provides new, interesting cultivars for consumers while also laying a foundation for anthocyanin research to help create plant colors that the ornamental industry and consumers enjoy. Anthocyanins are water-soluble pigments that give fruit, leaves, flowers, stems and roots their color. They also protect the plant from damaging ultraviolet sunlight and act as antioxidants when eaten.

ARS is the principal intramural scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.