In his quest to find a shorter trade route to the spice-laden East, Christopher Columbus decided to sail in a westerly direction.The land he first encountered was an island in the Caribbean where he found an unfamiliar vegetable being consumed by theindigenous peoples.Its fiery taste was reminiscent of black pepper (Piper nigrum), a spice grown in the East Indies that helped prompt his voyage.With the taste connection in mind, Columbus gave the piquant vegetable the name “pepper.”
Sweet pepper often is called bell pepper because of its blocky, campanulate shape. It is noted for its crisp, crunchy flesh and is a variant of the species encounter by Columbus. Since the National Garden Bureau has chosen it as its vegetable to promote this year, 2015 is the “Year of the Sweet Pepper” for gardeners.
Peppers (from the scorching habaneros to the sweet bells) are members of the Solanaceae, or nightshade, family, as are tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplants. Although there are five species of pepper that are cultivated, the most common and the one to which sweet pepper belongs is Capsicum annuum.
It appears that all peppers originated in Central and South America. Archeological evidence in Mexico suggests that native peoples gathered wild (hot) peppers as far back as 7,000 B.C. and by 2,500 B.C. they were cultivating them. History does not record when sweet peppers arrived on the scene, but we do know why they are sweet and not hot.
The “fire” in hot peppers is due to capsaicin, a chemical compound produced by most members of the Capsicum genus that causes a burning sensation when it comes into contact with mucous membranes. Sweet peppers contain a recessive gene that blocks the production of capsaicin, making them benign from the standpoint of “fire”. Presumably, this recessive gene was the result of a chance mutation in nature that someone discovered and considered to be an improvement to this species.
Most gardeners associate sweet peppers with being green in color. The fact is that, while most sweet peppers start green, all will develop color if allowed to mature fully. This usually takes about ten days following development of full size. Peppers allowed to develop color are higher in vitamin content and sweeter than those that are fully-developed yet green in color when harvested.
Peppers should be planted in the garden in the spring, after all danger of frost has past. They require warmer growing temperatures than tomatoes and typically are planted about two weeks later. Early planting of peppers often leads to poor early fruit set since the latter is hampered at temperatures of 55 degrees F. or less.
When establishing peppers in the garden, it is best use transplants rather than seeds. Pepper seeds are slow to germinate in cool soil. Space plants 12 to 18 inches apart within rows separated by a minimum of 24 inches. Popular varieties of sweet pepper for the home garden include ‘Revolution’, ‘King Arthur’, ‘Yolo Wonder’, ‘Big Bertha’ and ‘Aristotle’.
Peppers perform best with full-sun exposure in a well-drained, loamy soil with a pH ranging from 6.0 to 7.0. Fertilizers with a 1-2-2 ratio (e.g. 5-10-10) can be added to the soil before planting at the rate recommended by a soil test. High rates of nitrogen as a pre-plant should be avoided since it can reduce fruit set. Instead, nitrogen should be added as a side-dressing during the course of the growing season, after a significant fruit-set exists. Since pepper plants have a relatively shallow root system, they are susceptible to moisture stress when rainfall is inadequate. Moisture stress will cause flowers and small fruit to drop. Additionally, it will reduce leaf area, causing the remaining fruit to be sun-scalded. Failure to apply adequate water can also exacerbate a physiological disorder of peppers called blossom-end rot.
Gardeners with limited space might want to consider growing peppers in containers. Their large, glossy leaves, petite white flowers and colorful mature fruit add decorative appeal to patios, decks, etc. Select containers that are least two gallons in size and fill with a porous, well-drained growing medium. Commercially available mixtures containing Sphagnum peat, vermiculite and perlite are ideal for container production of peppers. Peppers have relatively few disease problems. They can be attacked by several diseases, including bacterial leaf spot, phytophthora, anthracnose and several viruses. When available, choosing a genetically-resistant variety of pepper is the most effective management strategy for controlling diseases.
Insect pests that typically damage peppers in Missouri include European corn borer, pepper maggot, aphids, thrips, stink bugs, spider mites and cucumber beetle.
Whether picked when green or allowed to develop color, peppers should be stored under cool, humid conditions. To avoid chilling injury, do not expose peppers to temperatures lower than 45 degrees F. Long-term exposure to temperatures above 50 degrees F can cause the peppers to change color, lose fresh weight and decay.
Sweet peppers are “powerhouses” of nutrition. One serving (149 grams) of chopped sweet peppers has only 30 calories.Yet it contains 11 percent of the daily minimum requirement of vitamin A and (amazingly) 200 percent of that for vitamin C. Additionally, sweet peppers are good sources of vitamins E and K, potassium, manganese, thiamin, riboflavin and niacin, and very good sources of vitamin B6, dietary fiber and folate.
REVISED: September 29, 2015