learn how to grow the fish pepper

The Fish Pepper: How to grow this fascinating heirloom vegetable

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The first time I ate a fish pepper, I fell in love. Fish peppers are medium-hot with a fiery bite that falls somewhere between a jalapeño and a cayenne. They’re very easy to grow in gardens and containers and the plants are not only productive, but also ornamental with pretty variegated leaves and fruits.

Ornamental variegated foliage

The plants of this heritage pepper are extremely decorative with green and white variegated leaves.

The fish pepper is an African-American heirloom variety that dates to the 1800’s. The leaves of the plant are very unique and range from fully white to part green and white to fully green. Plus, much of the foliage has eye-catching cream colored speckles scattered across the leaf surfaces. Of course, we grow peppers for their fruits and this variety produces an abundance of bi-colored peppers that grow two to three-inches long. The cone-shaped fruits mature from green to orange to red. Like the foliage, the fruits are also striped with white streaks. Once fully ripe and bright red, the stripes fade. If you love hot peppers, you’ll want to grow this unique heritage plant.

Facts on the fish pepper:

  • Days to maturity – 80 days from transplant
  • Plant height – 24 to 30 inches
  • Plant width – 24 inches
  • Fruit size – 2 1/2 to 3 inches long, 1 inch wide
  • Scoville units – 5,000 to 30,000 (medium-hot)
  • Included in the Ark of Taste of Slow Food USA
Growing hot peppers

I love the unique green and white striped fruits of fish peppers. Each one has a slightly different appearance.

How to grow the fish pepper

To grow a bumper crop of fish peppers, you’ll need to start the seeds indoors under grow-lights or in a sunny window 10 to 12 weeks before the last expected spring frost date. Sow the seeds in pots or trays filled with a high-quality potting mix. Don’t bury the seeds deeply, but rather sow them a scant 1/4 inch deep and then cover the tray or pot with a piece of plastic wrap or a plastic dome. Because peppers, and especially hot peppers, germinate both faster and better with bottom heat, I like to place the seed trays on a heat mat, on top of the refrigerator, or wherever else they can get a bit of bottom heat. Once the seeds sprout, remove the plastic cover so air can circulate.

Keep an eye on the seedlings, removing any that are completely white. Fish pepper seedlings with all-white leaves won’t be able to photosynthesize and must be culled. As the fish pepper plants grow, keep your grow-lights on for sixteen hours a day. I use a timer to turn my lights on and off each day. I also keep an oscillating fan in my seed-starting room to provide good air circulation and reduce damping off, a common fungal disease.

Water regularly, keeping the soil lightly moist, not wet. Fertilize the plants every 7 to 10 days with a diluted liquid organic fertilizer, like a fish fertilizer. Once the last frost date has passed, harden off the fish pepper seedlings (check out this post for instructions on hardening off) and move them to containers or garden beds. Plant them 24 inches apart.

I live in a cold climate where spring weather can be unreliable and because peppers prefer soil above 60 F (16 C), I like to pre-warm the soil of my garden beds before I move my fish pepper seedlings outside. It helps them establish quickly and reduces transplant shock.  To pre-warm, cover the soil with a sheet of black or clear plastic, pulling the plastic taut and weighing it down around the perimeter. Install the plastic about two weeks before you intend to plant.

Alternatively, you can also install a mini hoop tunnel overtop the garden bed for two weeks before you transplant. The tunnel can be left in place for the first few weeks after the fish pepper plants have been moved to the garden. This provides extra heat to the plants. Vent the ends of the tunnel by clipping them open during the day. Good air circulation is important to discourage plant diseases.

Like all hot peppers, fish peppers grow best when planted in a sunny site. Dig in some compost before planting and insert tomato cages over top the plants to support the branches. You can also use wooden stakes, tying the plants to their supports as they grow.

Striped pepper

The fruits of fish peppers are extremely ornamental with bold green and white stripes. As they mature, the fruits turn a bright red and the stripes disappear.

Growing the fish pepper in containers

Fish peppers are easy to grow in pots, but I’d recommend choosing a container that is twelve to sixteen inches in diameter. Pepper plants need well-drained soil, so the selected pot must have drainage holes in the bottom. Fill the container with a mixture of a high-quality potting mix and compost. I eyeball it, but my radio is generally around two-thirds potting mix to one-third compost. You can also use a compost based mix like FoxFarm Ocean Forest potting soil.

Once the container is filled, tuck a fish pepper seedling in the growing medium and water. It’s a good idea to insert a tomato cage at this time to support the branches which can be prone to breaking when they’re heavy with fruits. Place the pot where it will get at least eight to ten hours of sun each day.

Container-grown peppers benefit from regular applications of a liquid organic fertilizer. You can also top dress the soil with a thin layer of worm castings or a slow-release granular organic fertilizer which is quicker and easier than remembering to add a liquid fertilizer to your watering can every few weeks.

Care and maintenance of fish peppers

About six weeks after transplanting, I apply a thin layer of worm castings to the soil around the plants in my garden beds to promote healthy growth. A mulch of compost can also be applied to the soil surface to help moisture and prevent weed growth. It’s also important to keep an eye out for potential pests.

pepper plants in the garden

Mulching the soil around fish pepper plants with compost, straw or another material helps hold soil moisture and discourage weed growth.

Three pepper pests

While hot peppers are generally easy to grow, there are various pests that can plague your peppers. To discourage pests, I include a wide variety of flowers and herbs in my food garden to attract predatory and beneficial insects.

  • Aphids – Perhaps the most common insect pest in vegetable gardens, aphids are soft bodied insects that can be green, gray, brown and various other colors. They reproduce quickly and their heavy feeding can cause distortion and damage to the fresh growth at the tips of the shoots. To discourage aphids, don’t over-fertilize, which can promote excess tender growth. When I first spot aphids, I look closely to see if any beneficial insects are already on the job. Ladybug or lacewing larvae love to feed on aphids. If this is the case, I do nothing and allow nature to take its course. If, after a few days, there are no beneficial insects on site, I’ll use a spray bottle to shoot a hard jet of water at the aphids, knocking them off the plant. Repeat often.
  • Slugs and snails – Slugs and snails can be a big problem, especially in spring when plants are small and vulnerable and there is typically more moisture which allows these pests to move around the garden with ease. Use diatomaceous earth to reduce slug and snail damage, but also handpick any that you find. Usually early morning is the best time to go on a slug and snail hunt. For more on dealing with slugs, check out this excellent post.
  • Spider mites – The twospotted spider mite is a tiny pest that hides on the bottom of pepper leaves. They thrive in hot temperatures and pierce the leaves to feed. This results in a ‘stippled’ look on the leaf surface. Heavily damaged leaves may drop and webbing may be visible on the plants. While their feeding damage is annoying, the big problem with spider mites is that they can be a vector for spreading plant diseases. As with aphids, my favorite way to reduce spider mites is to spray the leaves, particularly the bottom leaf surface with a spray bottle filled with water. Misting and spraying regularly with water can discourage spider mites from attacking your peppers.
Hot pepper harvest

The medium-hot fruits of fish peppers can be used in your favorite recipes – curries, sauces, chili, and so on.

Harvesting fish peppers

Fish peppers can be harvested when immature and still green and white, or mature and fully red. Because they’re spicy, it’s a good idea to wear gloves when harvesting the fruits. The fruits generally break easily from the plants, but you may wish to use a pair of snips or pruners to harvest.

Because we get a bumper crop of fish peppers at the end of the season, I like to freeze many of the still-green fruits to use in winter chili, cornbread and other dishes. I rinse and dry them and place them in a labelled freezer bag. Bright red mature fruits can also be frozen, dried, or dehydrated and ground into a spicy chilli powder.

For more information on growing heat-loving vegetables like fish peppers, be sure to check out these posts:

Do you want to grow the fish pepper in your vegetable garden?

How to grow the fish pepper in gardens and containers

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2 Responses to The Fish Pepper: How to grow this fascinating heirloom vegetable

  1. Brent Eamer says:

    I made a paste with mine and put them in mini zip lock bags. It’s a lovely plant. And thank you for the seeds!

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