Fish Peppers

Spice up your garden and kitchen with these unique, popular peppers.


| April/May 2009



fish pepper

In addition to spicing up food, "fish" peppers make a visual splash in the garden.


PHOTO: WILBUR ZIMMERMAN

The story of the ‘Fish’ pepper is about bee stings and black history, and a delicious hot white sauce. All the ‘Fish’ peppers now sold by seed companies trace back to seed I shared many years ago through Seed Savers Exchange. From my grandfather’s little seed jar, this unique variegated-leaf pepper spread to the world of pepper aficionados and, because of its ornamental character, to landscape gardeners.

My grandfather acquired the seed in the 1940s from Horace Pippin, a black folk painter in West Chester, Pa. Mr. Pippin suffered from a war injury that he referred to as “the miseries.” Because the miseries were of an arthritic nature, he would beg my grandfather to let him counter the pain with honeybee stings. My grandfather’s bee hives were his pride and joy, and the idea of killing bees (honeybees die shortly after stinging) in the name of an old wives’ remedy did not sit well with him.

So to humor my grandfather and “pay” for the dead bees, Pippin would bring seeds, sometimes wonderfully rare varieties from old-time gardeners in his far-flung network of friends stretching from Philadelphia to Baltimore and beyond. The ‘Fish’ peppers came from Baltimore, where they had been employed by black caterers to make white paprika for the cream sauces then popular with fish and shellfish cookery. In terms of heat, they are like cayenne, but are more mellow when cooked. The white pods were also used in soups where red peppers would have created a muddied appearance. As far as Mr. Pippin could tell, these peppers had been in use since the 19th century, one of those secret heirloom ingredients that never showed up in cookbooks. They were simply part of oral tradition.

Today, ‘Fish’ peppers are popular for their ornamental qualities and because the 2-foot plants are easy to grow in containers. The leaves, with their patches of white and gray-green, derive their unique appearance from the same recessive genes that cause albinism. This results in a curious combination of striped pod colors, from white to red. ‘Fish’ peppers make perfect accent plants in the landscape. Of course, they’re also grown for cooking, and are perfect for drying into wonderful hot-hot chili powder.

Some seed companies are now selling “off” seeds, with leaves that are not multi-colored enough and pods of the wrong shape. So stick to the sources listed in the Mother Earth News Seed and Plant Finder. The pods should be short, pendant and pointed, ideally about 1 1⁄2 to 2 inches long.

Saving seed from ‘Fish’ peppers is both easy and complicated. Seed must come from fully ripened fruit and from plants that are not growing near other Capsicum annuums (common peppers such as bell peppers, cayennes, etc.). The reason for the latter is that as insects and wind move pollen around, the recessive gene in ‘Fish’ peppers will spread to other peppers in the area. So you may end up with variegated bell peppers and who knows what else!





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