Seaberry Farm’s ornamentals offer spice to arrangements and a taste from other worlds
By CAROL KINSLEY
FEDERALSBURG, Md. (Nov. 14, 2017) — Culinary artists have long used peppers with varying degrees of heat to jazz up their dishes.
Cut flower growers may soon be able to spice up their bouquets with colorful peppers in a variety of shapes and sizes, thanks to research by Dr. Chris Wien, professor emeritus from Cornell University, and Dr. Rick Uva, co-owner with his wife, Wenfei, of Seaberry Farm.
Both of the Uvas earned their doctorates at Cornell.
These are not the tiny ornamental peppers that your grandmother may have raised in a little pot on the back porch.
Grown in the flower fields at Seaberry Farm, these new varieties, identified only by number, reach 2 to 3 feet — sometimes a little more — in height and produce fruit of different colors and shapes.
Some are long and skinny, shaped like green beans. Some are more like miniature banana peppers.
Others have a short, fat shape more like a tomato, and some look like old-fashioned Christmas light bulbs. Uva’s favorite variety bears its fruit standing upright at the end of the stem, which is easier to work with in a cut flower arrangement.
In colors of red, orange, yellow and even purple, the peppers add special interest to a bouquet. “Just something extra,” Uva said.
He also uses okra pods or an orange eggplant variety called “Pumpkin on a Stick.”
These extras add to the fall look of a bouquet, “at least that’s how I think of them,” Uva said.
He also harvests winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) with orange berries for fall, saving the red-berried variety for Christmas.
Seaberry Farm specializes in woody cut materials for floral design and decorative purposes.
After working and studying at Cornell for 16 years, they and they children moved to a former soybean field in Caroline County where they now have a diverse variety of specialty fruits, such as beach plums, and cut flowers which they sell both retail and wholesale.
Wenfei also makes flower arrangements for weddings and events.
The peppers have been interesting to watch, said Joe Sharpley, who was headed to Seaberry’s fields late in October to harvest some late-blooming flowers. The peppers “were a nice green bush,” Sharpley said. “Then they exploded with vibrant yellow peppers that turned to orange and red. It’s so amazing. They really pop!”
Another employee, Jake Sauers, said he had rubbed his eye after cutting peppers and quickly “learned to use discretion.”
Uva said he had taken a bite of one of the skinny peppers, “but I’ll not do that again.”
Mars Lambert had tasted them, too, and declared they were “a bit sharp, ending with a subtle spice.”
These peppers were collected from fields at Cornell where Wien was acting director of Cornell Plantations until 2014.
His major research focus there was on the production and physiology of cut flowers and herbaceous perennials.
Wien said, “A colleague of mine was looking at new varieties of peppers that had been grown out from seeds in a USDA collection gathered from all over the world. They were growing in a field next to mine. I looked over and saw quite large plants that would make a nice decorative item.”
The peppers were Capsicum baccatum, which originated in South America. Regular garden peppers are Capsicum annuum.
The South American variety are a long season pepper. “Planted in May or June, they take a long time to reach the point of harvest, longer than most annual types,” Wien said.
When Wien retired in 2015 and moved to Annapolis, he brought some of the seed with him.
“We selected some to grow out. The ones Rick is growing this year are part of that collection. I haven’t done any breeding. We just grew them out to see which would be most useful.”
Seed companies had ignored these ornamental peppers, Wien said. “They weren’t interested.”
He decided to see if he couldn’t revive them.
This summer he grew out at Beltsville’s USDA Agricultural Research Center some of the same varieties Uva grew at Seaberry Farm.
“One thing I’m concerned about,” Wien said, “is that the peppers have a lot of leaves. When I visited Rick last week, he had harvested some. He sweated them, quite successfully.”
Uva explained that rather than pick the leaves off the pepper stalks, he had “sweated” them by putting the branches in a bag in a box in the greenhouse, which made them sweat, and the leaves fell off. “It works for peppers,” he said. “You want the leaves off.”
Wien said when he moved to Maryland, he had gotten in touch with a pepper breeder at Beltsville.
“He had developed some peppers with shiny, almost black foliage and black fruit and was selecting them as bedding plants.
These ‘Black Pearl’ peppers have shiny black fruit that turns to red as it matures.”
This variety is commercially available, sold with the warning that the fruits are technically edible but extremely hot.
The black peppers do not get quite as large as the others being trialled, but do grow to two or three feet.
Wien suggested they were not suitable as an ornamental plant in the garden.
“They’re not meant for that,” he said.
Wien said he had put some of the black pepper stems in a vase, to keep them for a few days and see what would happen over time — whether the leaves would wilt. The results were variable, he said.
“Then I thought, if Rick can sweat his peppers, why not these?” He started a similar trial to sweat the leaves off and see if the black peppers are attractive enough to use as decoration.
“We are exploring possibilities,” he said. He and Uva plan to attend a meeting of the Maryland Cut Flower Growers Association, which invites people to present things they are doing or the results of planting or marketing efforts. “In January or February, the two of us will get together and show the group what we have found. We’ll see if there’s any interest on their part.”
No seed company is marketing the seeds or plants grown from the seeds Wien got from the USDA through Cornell, so growers could grow out some plants and save the seeds for their own use.
Material from the breeding program at Beltsville, he said, is more restrictive. Growers would be able to grow plants and market them, but not save the seed.
If growers are interested and can report back to Wien on which line is most successful and most attractive, he can share that information with USDA, which could try to interest seed companies in multiplying the stock of seed and marketing it so that it comes through a commercial source.
In comparison to the number of different cut flower species that are grown commercially, these peppers represent a tiny, specific item for a niche market, Wien continued.
There’s not much interest in them for the rest of the year. “I have no illusion that this is going to transform the cut flower business,” he said.
Wien said he has not “tasted his way through” the black peppers. “Maybe some are not as pungent. The ones Rick has a couple of us tasted. They were a little spicy but not violently so. They are certainly edible. Most of us know they have to be handled gingerly. The oil can be irritating on delicate parts of the body.”
The peppers may only have seasonal interest, but they could certainly be “hot” sellers in the fall cut flower market. Interested cut flower growers may contact Wein at 607-229-9939.
For more information on the Uvas’ operation, visit www.seaberryfarm.com or call 410-754-3195.
Easton, MD 21601-8925