Friday, December 23, 2011

Capsicum Annuum (Ornamental Pepper)

Every year around the holidays, the greenhouses bring in shipments of Capsicum Annuum, commonly-referred to as Christmas or ornamental peppers, and as soon as I see them, it brings to mind something funny that I experienced a few years ago, which I’m going to share with you today.

But first, the disclaimer:

“What you are about to read is based on a true story. The names have been to protect the innocent - and the guilty. And perhaps even the slimy. Not that there will be any names included, aside from maybe a plant or two, and not that any names would be changed even if they were included.

And now, the story:

One evening in December of 2002, my husband and I took a drive over to a local hardware store that has a greenhouse attached to it. I don’t remember what we were going to pick up, but I’m pretty certain it wasn’t plants. It never is plants. But always ends up being plants.


As always, as soon as we entered the store, hubby moseyed on over to the tools; I made a beeline for the houseplants. And all was well with the world. So far.

In the greenhouse, I was in awe of all the holiday plants that had literally taken over most of the shelf space. Amongst them was a large display of Capsicum Annuums, which never fail to draw your attention with their colors. And they didn’t fail to draw mine that day; I headed right over to them. As I leaned over to take a closer look at the cute peppers on the plants, a man near me said: “These are such nice plants”

The speaker, standing about two feet away smiling at me, was a man in (what looked to be) his early forties. He came across as a little creepy, but most people living in a big city seem a little creepy (must be something in the drinking water), therefore I didn’t think much of it. I got the impression that he was waiting for me to say something, so, just to be polite, I said: “Yes, they are” (Okay, it’s not much, but I’m a bit of a minimalist even in conversations. Plus he was a stranger. Didn’t your mother ever teach you not to talk to strangers, especially creepy city guys?) I thought that was the end of it – after all, I’d said something - but he went on.

Him: “Do you know what they are?”

(Groan. A friendly, creepy city guy.)

Me: “Their common name is Christmas or ornamental peppers”

Him: “Oh”

He paused for three seconds, which gave me (false) hope that he’d go away. But he kept talking.

Him: “Do you know their Latin name?”

(Do I look like I a botanist?)

Me: “I don’t remember, but there’s a tag attached to the plants that includes their name and care info”

Him: “How do you care for them?”

(Hello, McFly. I just said there’s a tag.)

Me: “I’m not sure, but someone that works here can probably help you.” (Why don't you go bother them?)

I started to move away and he inched closer. This was no longer an alleged creepy-city-guy; this was an authentic creepy-city-guy.

Him: “So you like plants?”

(No, I’m an addict. I come here to sniff the insecticides.)

Me: “They’re okay” (I’m a plantaholic...shhhh...admit nothing.)

Him: “Do you come here often”

(What? OH. MY. GOD. This authentic-creepy-city-guy is trying to pick me up in a greenhouse. That’s like totally ‘fudged’ up.)

Me: “No” (Only when I want to meet authentic-creepy-city-guys - like you.)

Him: “What’s your name?”

(Come any closer and I’ll shove a pepper up your nose.)

Me: “Excuse me, I have to go. My husband is waiting”

And that was the truth; hubby had just entered the greenhouse. How can you not love a man who has such perfect timing with authentic-creepy-city-guy dilemmas?

The story never ran its full course, which may have proven to be quite interesting. So many questions remain unanswered. Would the authentic-creepy-city-guy have asked me for my phone number? Would the authentic-creepy-city-guy have asked me on a date? Would the authentic-creepy-city-guy have asked questions about other plants because he was only after my plant mind? Would I have eventually shoved a pepper up the authentic-creepy-city-guy’s nose?

[Sigh] I’ll just never know...

What I do know is how to take care of Capsicum Annuums. I didn’t want to share this information with the authentic-creepy-city-guy because it would have encouraged him to stick around, but with you guys, no problem.

Caring For Capsicum Annuum

This popular plant, with common names such as Christmas pepper, ornamental pepper and ornamental chili, appears in large quantities in autumn – usually close to Christmas time - with its brightly coloured fruit in a variety of bold shades. The plant is not grown for its lance-shaped, deep green, slightly hairy leaves but rather for its ‘ornamental peppers’. A few of these plants massed together makes a striking display during the holiday season as a centerpiece.

Small white flowers appear in summer or early autumn, followed by the fruit, which is green at first and gradually turns to shades of red, orange, yellow and – on some plants – purple. Capsicum Annuum is not limited to one shade per plant; four or five different shades of peppers can appear at the same time on a single specimen. The colourful fruits last for 8 – 12 weeks and are not poisonous like the leaves – or so I’ve read. But even though the peppers are (supposedly) edible, albeit quite hot, I wouldn’t recommend spicing up your food with them; the plants, sold as ornamentals, are often treated with chemicals, so don’t chance it – unless you grow your own plants from seed. In that case, spice away to your heart’s content.

Because Capsicum Annuum is considered an annual, most sources of information will recommend that you discard it after its decorative period is over and get yourself a new one when the next holiday season comes along. However, you can keep it as a foliage plant if you’d like, which is all it can be used for since getting it to flower again is extremely difficult. It’s a small plant that rarely needs repotting and its leaves, though not the most attractive, are not that bad either. In any case, it’s something to consider.

Capsicum Annuum is easy to maintain, needing very little to keep it happy. Adequate light is one of the most important requirements. Although filtered sun is tolerated, some direct sunlight is essential. Morning or afternoon sun will keep your ornamental plant thriving; some southern sun can also be handled. Do not keep this plant in the shade; it will not do well at all where the quality of light is poor.

It’s important to use a potting mix that is airy and light for good drainage; the plant will rot easily if over-watered. Water thoroughly as soon as the soil surface feels dry to the touch. Keep the plant moist at all times; never allow it to dry out completely, which can cause the fruit to fall. Consider using the immersion method, once in awhile, to water your plant. Capsicum Annuum has not been tested in hydroculture yet, so I cannot advise on how it will handle the transition or whether it’ll grow happily in the alternative growing style. When I do convert one, I will modify this article to include my experience.

Keep humidity above average if possible; dry air is another cause of premature dropping of fruit. Capsicum Annuum does well in average room temperatures but the fruit will last longer in cooler levels between 13°C (55°F) to 15°C (59°F). Temperatures down to 5°C (41°F) can be tolerated, although there’s no need to expose your plant to such lows. Feed with a standard liquid fertilizer every two to three weeks while your plant is in fruit; do not feed during the remainder of the year.

That’s all there is to growing this ornamental cutie, which should be used as a decoration during the holiday season, not as an opening line to pick up someone at your local greenhouse, of all places. But if that type of setting turns you on, instead of using a plant that may very well get you a pepper up the nose, consider using an exotic orchid, a dazzling Calathea, a colourful Croton, an eye-catching Bromeliad or a spectacular (albeit temperamental) Alocasia. Even a Dieffenbachia will probably score more points with its beautifully-variegated leaves. For obvious reasons, stay away from a Pachypodium lamerei and a Euphorbia milii, both of which can cause serious bodily harm when used as weapons if your pickup attempt ends up inviting hostility. And, a word to the wise: “not only do the peppers on a Capsicum annuum fit up a nose, but so do small cacti, which are often plentiful in any greenhouse...and exceedingly painful...”

Don’t say you weren’t warned.


  1. A pick-up line is not something you expect to hear whilst admiring a pepper plant!!! I had this plant outside my front door all last fall, very attractive.

  2. That's for sure, Jane! He really was a little creepy!