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Conservancy spices up urban plots with eye-catching peppers

Saturday, September 01, 2001

By Eric Slagle

Correction/Clarification: (Published Sept. 7, 2001) A story Saturday about urban garden beds created by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy failed to mention that the beds are planted and cleared each May and October by more than 1,000 volunteers. During the summer, each bed is maintained by at least one volunteer.

The tips of Medusa peppers jut upward and outward, like the charging horns of a bull. When they're mature, most turn a devilish red, with a speckling of bright yellow and orange in the mix.

Megan Griffin, assistant director of community conservation for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, checks the status of the Medusa peppers growing in the conservancy's flower beds along Forbes Avenue in Oakland. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette Photos)

Though they're edible, don't look for Medusa peppers in a vegetable garden. Instead, these ornamentals hold places of honor in beds planted by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. Among the places you'll find these short bushy plants with dark green leaves are the Carnegie Museum in Oakland and Liberty Avenue, Downtown. This year, the conservancy planted some 12,300 Medusa peppers in urban garden areas around Allegheny County.

Josie Gaskey, the conservancy's senior director of community gardens, spotted Medusa peppers (Capsicum annuum 'Medusa') at the Ball Seed test garden in Chicago last year. This year, they became part of the various combinations that the conservancy tried.

As Halloween approaches, Medusa's vivid fruits look like dishes of Halloween candy amid the spindly foliage and purple flowers of tall verbena (Verbena bonariensis) and clusters of white-flowered cleome, the spider flower. Megan Griffin tends the bed near the museum, and the late Faith Gallo planted the plot by Gateway Center.

Eight staff members at the conservancy design the various plots, suiting the combinations to the site. Some plots see a lot of pedestrian traffic while others are viewed mostly from cars.

"There is no need to consider fragrance if people are flying by at 60 mph," Gaskey said.

Take a site near Point State Park that is flanked by a parking lot and ramps leading off the Fort Pitt Bridge. There, tall orange Wyoming canna stand out like ostriches behind the annual ornamental grass, Pennisetum. Nearby, tall stands of annual black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia 'Indian Summer') hover above purple petunias. The combination of plants is the organic equivalent of a Zambelli fireworks show.

Verbena bonariensis in a conservancy plot along McKnight Road in Ross attracts a monarch butterfly.

Though Medusa peppers don't perfume the air, they create a sort of matrix effect for passing motorists. Close up, they can delight pedestrians with a range of colors on a single plant. The Medusa's fruits, which number 40 to 50 per plant, are child-safe, unlike the other blistering hot ornamentals that have been developed during the past 20 years, said Mark Chalmers, product manager of PanAmerican Seed Co. PanAmerican sells Medusa seed to Ball.

Chalmers said Medusa and another safe ornamental called the "Chilly Chili," both developed by plant breeder Marlin Edwards, are becoming popular with landscapers and retailers now that the heat factor has been removed. He noted that Medusas are part of the landscape at Disney World in Florida, a place that couldn't grow ornamental peppers in the past because the hot fruits were dangerous to children.

Fred Bartsch grew many of the Medusa peppers at his greenhouses in Shaler for the conservancy and delivered them in 4-inch pots. He said Medusas were non-growth-regulated, meaning plants could be successfully started indoors without the sophisticated tricks greenhouses use to simulate Mother Nature.

Add to that the plant's low light requirement, and the Medusa becomes a fairly easy-to-grow winner for home gardeners, Bartsch said.

Bartsch recommended a light application of 20-10-20 fertilizer at every other watering and said the plants could be grown indoors year-round.

The vivid-colored Medusa peppers have become part of the various combinations of plants the conservancy has tried this year in its urban gardens.

Gaskey said the secret of the conservancy's outdoor success with the Medusa is the leaf mulch and organic material used to build the topsoil, combined with summer heat. The conservancy's tightly planted Medusas (6 to 8 inches apart) responded well to full sunlight.

If you haven't seen them yet, there's still time to spot the Medusas. Gaskey said they'd grace conservancy gardens until the first frost.

Eric Slagle is a free-lance writer.

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