Hybrid Peppers

John's Mystery Pepper Plant – Peach Variant
John's Mystery Pepper – Peach Variant, 2018

Only five major cultivated pepper species produce the 50,000 estimated pepper varieties. The vast number of pepper varieties are hybrids of one another, rather than their own distinct species. For example, the common Green Bell Pepper (with zero heat) is the exact same species (Capsicum annuum) as the spicy Cayenne (30,000-50,000 SHU). They're hybrids of one-another, and through the process of hybridization, they're very different from one another in both look and heat level.

Over the last few thousand years, pepper varieties have evolved from plants with simple round, red, berry-like peppers with modest heat to the many varied peppers of today. And, pepper growers everywhere are continuing this process (some unknowingly).

What is Hybridization

Hybridization is when pollen from one pepper variety is used to successfully pollinate the flower of a different variety, resulting in seeds that have genetic material from each of the parent plants. "Successfully pollinate" is the key term as not all pepper varieties can cross with each other. In some instances, plants from one pepper species can cross with a pepper plant of another species, though generally, hybridization is most likely from pepper types within the same species.

With hybridization, the offspring plants typically have traits that are a combination of its two parents. Sometimes traits will closely resemble one of the parents, while in others, the combination results in a plant/pepper that differs significantly.

Accidental Hybridization

While many times you'll want your seeds to produce the intended plant, sometimes it's fun to get new and unexpected varieties pop-up through hybridization. We accidentally found (and found again, and again...) that accidental hybridization is actually quite common. We typically grow anywhere from 20-40 varieties of peppers in about 400-600sqft. When using seeds from those plants, we usually find around 10-20% of our new plants are not what we expected.

Many times the differences are minor, like a small amount of purple tint toward the top of what would normally be an all white pepper. Sometimes hybrid plants have significant differences and desirable characteristics (beauty is in the eye of the beholder!). If you feel ready to provide a good home for this unplanned pepper, you may want to attempt to turn your newly discovered hybrid into a variety of your very own.

We recently planted 5th generation (5G) Fury seeds (an accidental combination of a White Ghost and Yellow Trinidad Scorpion, we believe) and are hoping to see greater consistency in its offspring this year. Last year, 3 of 4 of our 4th generation (4G) plants looked like the original, with the other still varying considerably. The prior year, only 2 of the 8 were closely similar to the desired parent variety.

Planned Hybridization

If you'd like to design your own hybrid, so to say, you'll first need to check to make sure the two varieties have the potential to cross with one another. If so, you'll want to clip the flower buds from one of the varieties just before the flower opens (so you know it'll have pollen from only that plant). Then, while holding them over a cup, take a tweeters and gently pull off all the flower petals from the bud. Place the buds in a small cup to dry. In a couple of days, you should be able to gently shake the cup to create a small film of pollen on the cup's bottom.

Once you have the pollen from the first variety, you'll want to find a flower just as it's getting ready to open on the second plant. While taking care, to keep this flower bud attached to the host plant, use a tweezers to gently pull apart the flower petals and use a cotton swab to apply pollen from the cup onto this flower. Fold a small piece of paper gently over the artificially pollinated flower and tape the edges to seal it.

About a week later, you should be able to remove the piece of paper and have the very beginnings of a new pepper. Mark the pepper by loosely placing a small twisty-tie around the pepper stem.

When ripe, pick the pepper and harvest its seeds. The next year, you'll want to plant as many of those seeds as possible. The child plants and their associated peppers will likely vary considerably. Having more plants gives you more ability to choose one (or a couple) with the most desirable attributes for continued propagation!

Selective Breeding to Lock-In Your New Hybrid

After the selection of your desired hybrid, the difficulty is the seeds from a hybrid plant (if viable) will usually produce a wide variety of offspring and many won't match your desired hybrid (and potentially some that could be even cooler). Thus, to establish a desired hybrid usually involves planting many seeds (we shoot for 6-10 seedlings each generation) from the hybrid in hopes one of the many plants will look like the original.

When a desired parent plant is identified, it's a good idea to separate that plant from others to increase the likelihood the fruit from the chosen parent plant will be the result of self-pollination verses having been pollinated from a nearby, non-ideal plant.

Selecting seeds from this desired, isolated parent plant can then be used to repeat the selective breeding process again the following year. For each year where this process is successfully carried out, the child plants should more closely and more frequently match the characteristics of the desired hybrid. Our reading suggests when this process is carried out over seven generations, the genetic material should be to the point where the following generations should reliably produce the intended plant.

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