Is it possible to have peppers that are both good decorative plants, yet produce good quality fruits for the table? Yes, you can. At least, that’s the opinion of two Agricultural Research Service (ARS) geneticists. Since 1991, John Stommel, of the ARS Vegetable Laboratory, and Robert Griesbach, of the ARS Floral and Nursery Plants Research Unit, both in Beltsville, Maryland, have bred peppers to please both the eye and the palate. These peppers have been developed through a co-operative research and development agreement with PanAmerican Seed Company and McCorkle Nurseries, Inc.
The eye-catching 'Black Pearl', released in 2005 and honoured as a 2006 All-America Selections (AAS) winner, attests to their success in developing new cultivars with both aesthetic and culinary appeal. The award recognises new flower and vegetable cultivars that demonstrate "superior garden performance" in trials conducted throughout the country.
'Black Pearl' is a robust plant, adaptable to environments from New England to California, Stommel says. In addition, it resists attacks from many insects and fungi and is remarkably drought-tolerant. The pepper is now on display at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. With moderately shiny, black leaves and glossy fruits that ripen from black to red, 'Black Pearl' offers a temptation few pepper enthusiasts could resist—and the AAS judges aren’t the only people who think so. Since its release, more than 2 million seeds have been sold.
'Black Pearl' has company. Stommel and Griesbach look forward to releasing several new pepper cultivars in the future, including one with spreading black foliage and colourful upright peppers with a spicy flavour. Another is exceptionally tall-growing as high as 90cm (3ft). A third, which produces fruit around Halloween, has black foliage and orange, pumpkin-shaped fruit.
Breeding these culinary ornamental peppers has been a cross-laboratory effort. How did the breeders do it? The first step is to isolate individual traits and select the ones they want, Stommel says. Within the Capsicum genus, there is great variety of qualities such as the size, shape, and colour of leaves and fruits. Griesbach compares the process of pepper breeding to assembling a Mr. Potato Head doll. By selecting specific characteristics, breeders can make desirable combinations. Any new combination will create a novel pepper. "Only your imagination is limiting," he says.
Breeding a new cultivar takes ten to fifteen years and involves making crosses and submitting the resulting plants to rigorous tests. But creating tasty and attractive plants isn’t the only benefit of the ornamental pepper breeding program. This work also has applications for many plant genetics studies.
These peppers are not the first plants to come out of the Vegetable Laboratory with both aesthetic and culinary appeal. Earlier research produced tomatoes rich in the carotenoids lycopene and beta-carotene, red and orange pigments that give tomatoes their characteristic colour. Lycopene and beta-carotene are antioxidants and have been linked to health-promoting benefits, so increasing tomatoes’ carotenoid content improves not only their colour, but also their nutritional value.
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