ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Watch out, poinsettia growers. With their vibrant colors and spicy edible peppers, small chili plants developed by a New Mexico researcher are turning up the heat on traditional holiday plants in greenhouses and nurseries.
The ornamental chili plants go far beyond the green and red of the state's signature crop.
Paul Bosland, professor of horticulture and director of the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, breeds ornamental chilies with holiday-specific colors, including peppers that turn from orange to black for Halloween, yellow to orange for Thanksgiving and red to white for Valentine's Day.
There's a long history of chili plants being given as holiday gifts in the Southwest, he said.
"In the 1800s and even up to the 1920s, people would give chili plants as a Christmas plant because (the peppers) would have the red and green colors. Now, the holiday plant is usually a poinsettia, and ornamental chili was forgotten," Bosland said. "New Mexico is famous for its green chili, red chili, cayenne and jalapenos, so why not add ornamental chili to the list?"
The plants can be used in the same manner as traditional holiday plants, either placed around the house or as a table centerpiece. After the holiday, they can be planted outdoors in the spring.
The majority of Bosland's research is devoted to developing chili for disease resistance and the color-extraction industry. Many chili farmers did not initially like the idea of Bosland creating ornamental plants when he began tinkering with it 20 years ago.
"They would tell me `Spend your time on disease resistance' or `Just do (ornamental breeding) on the holidays,' but then a chili processor said `Hey, if someone sees a chili plant on their table, they'll think of making enchiladas or chili sauce. They'll see the plant all the time.' You can't buy advertising like that," Bosland said.
To further the marketing reach, each ornamental variety contains the word "NuMex" in the plant's name, such as "NuMex Christmas" or "NuMex Halloween."
Bosland said it takes at least five years to create the colorful end product.
He has been working with Sunland Nursery, a wholesale company in Las Cruces, to breed the color-changing varieties and to get the plant to customers at independent garden centers in New Mexico and Texas.
Several hundred of Sunland's organically grown, ornamental chili plants recently hit the market, and the response has been good, said Jeff Anderson, head grower at Sunland.
"It's like a new crop. There's always hesitance with a new product because you don't know how it will be received," Anderson said. "But they're just really attractive and small but very showy. They're like candy — it's a hard decision to decide which one you want to take."
The NuMex ornamental chilies are also spicing up greenhouses and nurseries in North Carolina with the help of one of Bosland's former students, Travis Knoop.
Knoop, special projects manager at Metrolina Greenhouses in Huntersville, N.C., introduced the plants to the wholesaler, which sells plants to retailers including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Lowe's Cos. The plants have been flying off the shelves, he said.
"We grew six varieties in a trial, about 100 pots per variety, and within a 10-day window, we didn't have enough to supply to keep up with the demand," said Knoop, who grew up in Deming, where chili farming is a dominant industry.
Anderson said the ornamental chilies aren't typical flowering plants.
"Well, first off, they're edible. (The peppers) are hot, but not lethal hot, and can be plucked off and used for spice, and the colors are just fascinating," he said. "It's neat to see them change as the pepper matures."
Bosland said the plants can live for more than 10 years if cared for properly. He recommends placing them in an area with abundant sunlight and to be cautious of overwatering.
Although the NuMex varieties are not as popular as other ornamental chili plants on the market, Anderson says it's a matter of time before word gets around.
"I think the NuMex Christmas variety is going to be very, very popular," he said. "They just liven up the house and create interest. It's just like an old, new tradition."