One of the wonders that Christopher Columbus introduced from the New World was the chili pepper. This spicy veggie, which now plays an important role in many world cuisines, has also become one hot item in the garden.

More than 200 varieties of chilies grace the gardens of the world, but my favorites are from the “ornamental” group. Many have attractive foliage, but, as you might guess, they are especially valued for the abundant and colorful fruit they produce from early summer until a killing frost.

Ornamental chilies are typically small 1 to 3 inches long – and are often cone-shaped like the traditional chili pepper. Some interesting cultivars produce round fruit. One of the standout qualities of these peppers is that they look better as the summer progresses. It’s fascinating that as their fruit develops and ripens, the color magically transforms into deep oranges and reds.

Because of their showy nature, you won’t find these knockout plants tucked away in a corner of my veggie garden. I like to use them in mixed containers or in the borders of my landscape where their fruit can complement the flowers and foliage of my other annuals. I’m particularly fond of two award-winning selections, ‘Chilly Chili’ and ‘Black Pearl.’ Chilly Chili grows to just 10 inches tall and has miniature fruit that changes from yellow to orange to red as it matures.

Black Pearl Chili Peppers

Named long before Capt. Jack Sparrow and his ship sailed in Pirates of the Caribbean, the Black Pearl chili is popular for its deep purple (almost black) foliage with violet flowers that produce round, marble-sized fruit. The peppers remain black all summer but, in a feat that would impress even the cunning captain, the black pearls transform to bright red peppers in the fall.

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Another of my favorite chilies is ‘Medusa.’ This compact plant grows only 6 inches tall and wide. The variegated foliage of ‘Jigsaw,’ which is purple and white, or ‘Pretty in Purple,’ which is purple and green, can add appeal to any display.

In my garden you will find ornamental peppers planted in mixed containers with complementary flowers, or planted in masses of three or more to really make a show. I plant coleus or other similarly colored annuals nearby to accentuate the color of each pepper’s fruit.

Explosive Embers Chili Peppers

The minimum care required by these peppers also makes them attractive additions to the garden. No deadheading or fruit picking is required, and they thrive in full sun. Like many other plants, ornamental peppers prefer a moist, well-drained soil.

Feed ornamental peppers an all-purpose, water-soluble fertilizer about six weeks after transplanting and again if the plants start to look pale. They will benefit with a 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch, as well.

As these hot-looking plants mature, some gardeners bring certain varieties into their kitchens to heat up their cooking. Don’t say you haven’t been warned. Chilly Chili and Medusa are the only two mild-tasting ornamental peppers. The rest are just as hot in the pot as they are in the garden.

Dr. Sue Hamilton, director of the UT Gardens, writes the gardening column for Tennessee Home & Farm.

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