Growing one of Arkansas’ most popular vegetables

Story by Lisa D. Martin

Banana pepper, also known as yellow wax pepper or banana chile, is a cultivar of Capsicum annuum. Along with their close relatives bell peppers and jalapenos, banana peppers are among the most popular vegetables grown in the United States. Banana peppers are believed to have originally descended from the wild American bird pepper, which can still be found in very hot, humid areas throughout North, Central, and South America. Christopher Columbus discovered native people consuming these fruits when he arrived in the Americas. Because of their wide use and seeming abundance, Columbus introduced them to Spain in the late 1400s. From there, evidence indicates they rapidly spread across Spain, Italy, France, and Germany. 

Banana peppers are usually yellow or chartreuse with a shape similar to that of a banana, thus their name. Photo by Jaykup (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Peppers produce capsaicin, a compound that is responsible for their “heat,” or pungent flavor. That pungency is measured, or compared to the heat of other peppers, by Scoville Heat Units. Banana peppers have a very mild, almost tangy flavor and fall between 0 and 500 on the Scoville Scale, meaning that they have little to no heat. 

Peppers are warm-season vegetables that grow well throughout Arkansas. They prefer a sunny location with well-drained soil with a pH of 6.0 to 7.0, which is very slightly acidic to neutral. Unlike other common warm-season vegetables, peppers will NOT tolerate frost, so the seeds should not be sown until soil temperatures reach approximately 75 F. Seeds can be started indoors in late February or early March. Peppers should be planted with approximately 65 plants per 100 square feet of row. Peppers need to be kept moist, but not wet, throughout the growing season to allow for adequate flowering to produce peppers. Most banana pepper varieties reach maturity after 70 to 75 days.

Pepper plants grow well in gardens all across Arkansas. Photo by Judgefloro (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Many gardeners find growing peppers very similar to growing tomatoes. As a general rule, peppers can go into the garden about a week to 10 days after the tomatoes and have a very similar growth and fruiting pattern. Both peppers and tomatoes benefit from fertilization, but sparingly and with caution. A small dose of nitrogen (about ½ tablespoon per plant) can be applied when the small peppers begin to appear. Like tomatoes, peppers are very susceptible to tobacco mosaic virus, tomato spotted wilt virus, aphids, and cutworms. Good sanitation is often the best way to prevent disease and insect issues. Diseased or dying plants should be removed from the garden to prevent incubation or spread. 

Banana peppers should be picked when the peppers are about 2-3 inches long. Photo by AfroBrazilian (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Banana peppers can be harvested when they are 2-3 inches long. Banana peppers have a natural curve to them, much like that of a banana. They are usually pale yellow to chartreuse, but some varieties mature to red, green, or orange. 

Banana peppers are a good source of dietary fiber and high in potassium and vitamins A and C. Popular cultivars in Arkansas include: ‘Early Sweet Banana’, ‘Hungarian Yellow Wax’, ‘Long Sweet Yellow’, ‘Sweet Banana’, and ‘Sweet Hungarian’. Not only are banana peppers easy to grow, their mild flavor makes them great in a wide variety of dishes. They can be eaten raw, right off the vine, chopped and cooked, stuffed, and even pickled. Their versatility, ease of growth, and adaptation to the typical Arkansas climate make them one of the most popular vegetables all across the state.

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