Fruiting Pepper Stems: What About the Leaves?

Cut stems of ornamental peppers add color and texture to fall arrangements, reinforcing the themes of harvest and fruitfulness. Yet commercially available varieties of ornamental peppers look attractive only after the leaves have been removed, because the leaves wilt promptly when the stems are put in water. We have tried to maintain leaf turgor by using commercial hydrator solutions, but without success.

A couple of years ago, a colleague at Cornell who is developing new pepper varieties showed me some spectacular pepper plant introductions that had potential as cut stems.  They are a different species: Capsicum baccatum, rather than the ornamental varieties we normally grow, Capsicum annuum.  They are big plants that require a long growing season to mature, and in the first year, dropped their leaves as the fruits matured, thus eliminating the need for defoliation (We are in cold hardiness zone 5B).  Last year, the season was cooler, so we did not see the leaf drop, but when we placed the cut stems in water, leaves did not wilt, and the stems stayed attractive for three weeks. 

Last growing season we shared sample seeds of five lines with several ASCFG members through the National Cut Flower Trials, and the results of their tests can be found in the Trial Report on page 22 of this issue. Again, vase life ranged from 7 to 14 days or more. Only a few trialers kept the leaves on in their vase test, but were happy with the result. So it seems we have some pepper lines that show promise as fall cuts. 

Another strategy for dealing with the pesky leaves is to treat the stems like dried plants by hanging them up in a dry environment. We did that with these lines and found that all except PI 441525 retained an attractive appearance, but leaf removal continued to be a chore. Only PI 159252 had leaves that could be easily removed.

So should you leave the leaves?  Try it on a sample, and let the results dictate your actions.

What next?  If some of you would like to try these lines next year, please let Judy or me know, and we can send you samples. In addition, several seed companies also participated in the trials, and I am hopeful that they will be further developing these materials for extended vase life.

Photo 1: One of the lines tested. Mature fruits are about 1 inch diameter.
Photo 2: Priscilla Thompson, my assistant, next to one of the tested lines. By the end of the trial, plants were about 5 feet tall, producing stems 30 to 40 inches long.

Acknowledgements:  Many thanks to Dr. Michael Mazourek for producing the seeds for the trial, and to Liza White and Priscilla Thompson for gathering the data. I am also very grateful to the ASCFG Research Foundation for sponsoring this work.

Chris Wien


Chris Wien is recently retired Professor of Horticulture at Cornell University. Contact him at [email protected]