Honors Gallery

‘Pepper Jack,’ ‘Midnight Creeper,’ and ‘Lil’ Pumpkin’

Award: Excellence in Technology Transfer

Year: 2018

Award Type: National

USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) - Northeast Area

The introduction of dark purple to nearly black pigmented landscape and garden plants has created great consumer awareness.

Because many of these plants had limited seasonal interest, a team of scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture - Agricultural Research Service’s (USDA-ARS) Beltsville Agricultural Research Center introduced the black-leaved pepper named ‘Black Pearl.’ Besides its ornamental foliage, ‘Black Pearl’ produces small, black, round fruit that is hot, turns red as it ripens, and can be harvested for culinary spice. Because of the substantial commercial interest in ‘Black Pearl,’ USDA-ARS scientists developed a series of additional ornamental peppers with black foliage.

To reduce the time to commercialization, these peppers were vegetatively propagated, as opposed to seed-propagated, which reduces breeding time by 3-5 years. A Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) was established with McCorkle Nurseries to help establish a commercial production protocol as well as evaluate selections. As a result of the CRADA, three plants were selected for release, with patents filed and subsequently issued. To facilitate marketing, McCorkle gave the three plants trademarked names with a Halloween theme—‘Lil' Pumpkin’™, ‘Midnight Creeper’™ and ‘Pepper Jack’™. ‘Lil’ Pumpkin’ plants produce unique black foliage and orange pumpkin-shaped fruit; ‘Pepper Jack’ bears greenish black foliage and a mix of both orange and black small, cone-shaped fruit, like the ever-popular Halloween treat, candy corn; and ‘Midnight Creeper’ is a low-growing, dark-leafed plant that produces small, round, dark-colored peppers that turn bright red when fully ripe. In addition, the fruit of the plants, although small, is somewhat hot to the taste. In 2009, McCorkle exclusively licensed all three plant patents; however, attempts to increase plants for sale failed because of production issues and cost.

As a result of the CRADA, three plants were selected for release, with patents filed and subsequently issued.

Thus, the CRADA was amended to develop seed lines for each of the cultivars. Since McCorkle was not in a commercial position to either produce seed for sale or market a seed-propagated crop, a new partner, Seeds by Design, was found that signed a Biological Materials License (BML) in 2018.

Seeds by Design offers a diverse line of vegetable and herb seeds from heirlooms to hybrids that are suited for the commercial as well as the home gardener. It offers more heirloom varieties than any other production company and, in addition to improving its bottom line, was looking to add additional variety to its diverse line of vegetables, including peppers, tomatoes, and vine seeds.