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Darren Phillips, New Mexico State University
Jeff Anderson of Sunland Nursery Co. shows off an ornamental chili plant. Sunland breeds color-changing varieties of ornamental chilis.

ALBUQUERQUE — 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 on nursery shelves.

These 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 purple to black for Halloween, yellow to orange for Thanksgiving, and a red to white variety for Valentine's Day. In fact, Bosland has created color combinations for almost every U.S. holiday using genetic research.

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 indoor holiday plants, either placed around the house or as a table centerpiece. After the holiday season, they can be planted in outdoor gardens in the spring.

The majority of Bosland's research is devoted to developing chili for disease resistance and the color-extraction industry. Initially, chili farmers did not like the idea of Bosland spending time on 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 of the ornamental varieties created by Bosland have the word "NuMex" in the plant's name, such as "NuMex Christmas" or "NuMex Halloween."

Creating each variety is time intensive. Bosland said it takes a minimum of five years to create the colorful end product.

Bosland 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 so far, 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. 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," said Anderson, an NMSU horticulture program graduate.

The NuMex ornamental chilies also are spicing up greenhouses and nurseries in North Carolina with the help 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 and Lowes stores. Metrolina Greenhouses is the largest, single-site greenhouse in the country.

Despite being marketed to customers thousands of miles from the Southwest, Knoop said the plants have been "flying off the shelves."

"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. I had customers calling back and asking if we had any more," he said.

Knoop said he was inspired to pitch the NuMex plants to Metrolina based on his childhood in Deming, an area where chili farming is a dominant industry.

"With these plants, we could bring something from the farm into people's homes. Ornamental chili is not new to the market, so I try to promote it as an outdoor bedding plant that also conserves water," he said. "I really think the market would support (these plants). They are aimed at the handful of customers who come in and say 'I want something different."'

Anderson said the ornamental chili plants aren't typical flowering plants, and its unique qualities are appealing.

"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. It's neat to see them change as the pepper matures," he said. 'You can keep the plant alive for a long time and they'll keep producing peppers for you if you take care of it."

Bosland said the plants can live for more than 10 years if cared for properly. He recommends placing the chili in an area with abundant sunlight and to be cautious of overwatering.

Seeds for growing the plants can be purchased from the Chile Pepper Institute's Web site or by phone.

Although the NuMex varieties are not as popular as another more well-known ornamental chili plant on the market, Anderson says it's just a matter of time before the word gets around.

"I think the NuMex Christmas variety is going to be very, very popular. They just liven up the house and create interest. It's just like an old, new tradition."