Captivating capsicums: Igniting interest in plant breeding

Oct 11, 2012

Peppers in an array of colors, shapes, sizes and flavors grown at the UC Davis Student Farm are igniting interest in plant breeding and the astonishing botanical diversity of the Capsicum genus, to which all peppers belong.

“Fifty-two varieties is a wonderful candyland for me, but it’s just a few of the many varieties in the world,” said graduate student Ildi Carlisle-Cummins, who works on a partnership project between the Student Farm and researcher Allen Van Deynze.

Funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the pepper project is meant to educate students and the general public about the importance of plant diversity and career opportunities in plant breading.

“Peppers make it easy because they leave such a strong impression,” said Carlisle-Cummins, who has been organizing field trips for students from second grade and up. “Students become fascinated with plant diversity and variety, and want to know more about molding and shaping it.”

While Carlisle-Cummins’ personal research is focused on sustainable food systems, she is delighted to explain cross pollination to show students how to develop new varieties of plants.

Plant breeding allows humans to select for certain desired traits, such as flavor, yield and pest resistance.

Agricultural has always been a dynamic, innovative industry, Carlisle-Cummins points out. Peppers originated in South America, in the region around modern day Bolivia. Over the centuries, a few species were taken by explorers all over the world. Farmers developed a kaleidoscopic array of subvarieties to suit their needs. Today, researchers are focused on developing new varieties to address new issues, like climate change.

“The world is changing,” Carlisle-Cummins said. “It’s pretty critical we have crops that can survive new places and climates and continue to feed us. It’s critical that we continue to inspire people to go into these fields of research so we have people who know how to work with plants, so they adapt along with a changing world.”

The chile pepper program continues throughout the year.  Contact Ildi Carlisle-Cummins at to find out about upcoming events.

By Eve Hightower
Author - Communications Coordinator

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