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New Mexico State University

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New Mexico State University helps small business deliver color to holiday season

The "hottest" holiday decoration this season won't be festive lights or giant, inflatable snowmen. To truly spice up your holiday season, a New Mexico State University researcher recommends thinking chile.

Jeff Anderson, a grower at Sunland Nursery and a graduate of NMSU's Horticulture program, holds an ornamental chile plant inside the nursery. (NMSU Agricultural Communications photo by Darren Phillips)

"Chile is New Mexico's national identity," said NMSU Researcher Paul Bosland, widely recognized as the world's foremost authority on chile peppers. He is currently working with Sunland Nursery Company's Color Division in Las Cruces to help breed ornamental chiles with holiday-specific colors.

Bosland said ornamental chiles have been traditional holiday gifts in the Southwest for more than 100 years. He said he "paints with genes" to produce various colors, including peppers that turn from orange to purple to black for Halloween and from yellow to orange for Thanksgiving. Other color combinations are available for other holidays, including a traditional green to red transition for Christmas.

"Chile peppers are just part of New Mexico's tradition," said Jeff Anderson, a grower at Sunland Nursery and a graduate of NMSU's Horticulture program. The ornamental chiles he helps raise are eventually marketed to independent garden centers in Las Cruces, El Paso, Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

Bosland said while most of NMSU's chile genetic research is focused on developing disease resistance, breeding plants with the right colors and size traits are just as important for the state's greenhouse industry.

"We're happy to work with the university to help provide alternatives when it comes to holiday plants," said Steve Salsman, production manager at Sunland Nursery. He said consumers are always looking for new products and he appreciates NMSU's assistance in developing new plants.

Just like traditional holiday poinsettias, ornamental chiles can be placed around the house or serve as centerpieces for dinners. Unlike poinsettias, ornamental chiles can be planted to provide additional color to a flower garden or even used to add some extra kick to holiday recipes.

"These are real, live things you can use as decoration," said Bosland. "Plus, they're edible. It's nice to have these chiles. They are just fun."

Developing the perfect chile color combination is not a fast process. Bosland said it takes a minimum of five years to get the end product. NMSU's first hybridization for the Halloween-colored chiles was in 1991.

Bosland said if the chiles are watered regularly, protected from frost and given lots of sunlight, they can last more than 10 years. They are hardy to climate zone seven, and continuously picking off fruits will help the plants flower and produce new chiles during its entire lifetime.