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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

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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.

Breeding new plants is a great way to take something good and make it even better. ARS breeding projects have made more nutritious vegetables for our salads and healthier trees and shrubs for our parks and gardens. This chart contains only a very tiny fraction of the crops that have been improved with ARS breeding efforts.
Plant Type of ImprovementARS Plant Breeding Achievements
Bean Disease resistance, marketabilityARS-bred lines resist a variety of diseases, such as scab, blight, mosaic and rust. Researchers have also bred lines that withstand processing--so the beans you buy in a can are as tasty and firm as the beans you cook yourself.
Carrot NutritionCarrots today have 75 percent more beta-carotene, which helps us make vitamin A, than they did 30 years ago. ARS researchers have also made red, yellow and purple carrots with different health benefits.
Cotton HardinessARS-bred lines produce more cotton in extremely hot weather.
Cranberry NutritionARS-bred lines have antioxidants that humans can absorb more easily, making it easier to take advantage of the berry's nutritious properties.
Elm tree Disease resistanceARS-bred trees are resistant to Dutch elm disease, which wiped out almost every elm tree in the United States.
Grass Hardiness, nutritionFor military training sites and football fields, ARS has developed improved lines of grasses that are more resilient when they get run over by heavy things. Plus, they've developed healthier forage grasses for livestock and wildlife.
Peach Hardiness, disease resistanceARS-bred varieties grow further north, so they can be grown by more farmers in a variety of environments. Researchers have also bred lines that resist Peach Tree Short Life and other diseases.
Potato Nutrition, disease resistanceAmerica's favorite veggie now has more antioxidants. Plus, ARS-bred lines have more resistance to diseases like potato late blight.
Tomato Nutrition, disease resistanceARS-bred lines have more beta-carotene and lycopene, a red pigment and an antioxidant. Plus, they can resist diseases such as cucumber mosaic virus.
Sunflower Disease resistanceARS-bred lines resist fungal disease.
Watermelon Marketability, disease resistanceARS research has contributed to tasty, seedless, sturdy, disease-resistant melons.


Aesthetic: [es-THET-ic] Related to beauty.
Antioxidants: Natural substances produced by the body that protect cells.
Cultivar: A cultivated plant variety, not found in the wild.
Foliage: Leaves.
Forage: Grasses, small shrubs and vegetation that can be eaten by wildlife and livestock.
Genus: A group that contains one or more species.
Lines: In a breeding program, the plants that are bred to create new cultivars.
Ornamental: A plant that is grown for decoration.

—By Laura McGinnis, Agricultural Research Service


Last Modified: 8/12/2016
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