If you like to play practical jokes on your friends, how far in advanced have you planned to put one in place? I’ve waited two full gardening seasons, so far.
The devious prank occurred to me in 2019 when I read about a new “cooler hotter” chile pepper called Pumpkin habanero. These adorable pumpkin-shaped peppers look just like candy, and I thought they’d be a perfect trick for Halloween. I pictured how sweet they’d look sitting next to all the other seasonal treats on a party buffet table. (Cue fiendish laughter.)
Pumpkin habanero peppers are a cross between African and South American habanero peppers that were intentionally planted in the same field as part of a special project at Rutgers University. The two peppers mingled naturally and created a bright orange pumpkin-shaped habanero chile pepper.
These peppers were bred to pack less punch than Scotch Bonnets, more like a hotter jalapeno with a tangerine-like taste. Plant breeders wanted to produce peppers especially suited to the New Jersey climate and to give the state’s immigrant population a taste of home.
As a long-time vegetable gardener and chile grower, I didn’t let pepper facts stand in my way. Surely New Jersey habanero plants could also grow in drier and less humid Colorado.
But first I had to order seeds from the Exotic Pepper Project at Rutgers. The Exotic Pepper program began about 10 years ago as a special agricultural project to create new pepper varieties that were missing in the marketplace. The program was the brainchild of Albert Ayeni, professor of plant biology, together with professors Tom Orton and Jim Simon. They conduct their research at the New Jersey Agriculture Research Station in New Brunswick, N.J.
I spent $11 for forty Pumpkin habanero seeds that arrived in time for starting a few indoors in March. The seeds took about 8 weeks to sprout and grow into small, dark green plants with wrinkly leaves. They were ready for transplanting in May. Unfortunately, those first habanero plants struggled and never recovered from an early spring cold spell.
Rats! My Halloween prank would have to wait for the 2020 gardening season.
When spring rolled around, I started another batch of seeds and this time waited to transplant until temperatures really heated up in June. Two small, but healthy Pumpkin habanero plants began growing in containers placed in the hottest spot on the patio.
With a lot of extra TLC, the pepper plants each grew to over 24 inches tall. Every day I looked for small white flowers and then watched for the tiny green peppers to form. They were slow to grow and even slower for the first few to ripen to bright orange in September.
With warm October days helping them along, I had a good crop of perfect pumpkin-shaped peppers for my long-planned prank. But I’m foiled again! With no Halloween parties planned this year, I’ll have to wait for gardening season 2021 for my friends to be treated to my Great Pumpkin trick.
By Jodi Torpey
Master Gardener since 2005