Two cone-shaped yellow sweet peppers from Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Winslow are national winners in the 2016 All-America Selections (AAS) program, an organization that names the Best New Plants of the Year so for gardeners is like the Super Bowl and the Oscars rolled into one.

These plants were introduced to the public in this year’s catalog, but they were by no means overnight sensations. The peppers have been in the works for more than a decade, said Emily Rose Haga, plant breeder for Johnny’s pepper program, in a telephone interview.

First came the idea, and then – because these peppers are hybrids – the parents had to be developed, grown in test plots and made uniform enough to be used in seed production. After the hybridization took place, the hybrids were tested for about three years on-site at Johnny’s. Finally, they were grown and tested in about 80 gardens across the country.

The big difference between the two award-winning peppers is their size. Cornito Giallo F1 produces 5-ounce fruits that are about 6 by 2 inches, while Escamillo F1 produces 6-ounce fruits that are 8 by 2 1/2 inches.

“They both have strong, sturdy plant habits and will stand upright,” Haga said. “And they are delicious.”

For me, the sturdy, upright plant habit is important. The descriptions from All-America Selections say that neither pepper requires staking. Many of the peppers I grow tend to flop, with the peppers touching the ground and, all too often, rotting before they get fully ripe. If the two new varieties keep the peppers off the ground as advertised, they will be a major gain.

Haga said she can’t recall two such similar varieties from the same breeder ever being named AAS winners in the same year before. She added that Johnny’s didn’t expect to win because All-America Selections had named another yellow cone-shaped pepper from a different breeder a winner in 2014.

For a home gardener with space to grow just one of the two winners, Haga recommends the Escamillo.

“It’s a wonderful-tasting, beautiful-looking pepper,” she said. “You can eat it fresh, cut it up and cook it in a frying pan, roast it and do all sorts of things with it.”

The Cornito Giallo F1 is no slouch in the flavor department, either. ” ‘DOUBLE YUM’ was one judge’s response to our new AAS Winner Cornito Giallo F1 pepper. ‘The flavor on this one is totally a winner!’ ” says a blurb on the All-America Selections website.

Cornito Giallo was introduced with a red partner, Cornito Rosso, the sort of thing marketers like because different colored peppers displayed together attract customers.

“Besides that,” Haga said, “diversity in a diet is an extremely good thing. We are not making any health claims, but it is pretty well accepted that the more colors you have in your diet, the more antioxidants you have.”

Haga’s favorite pepper overall is neither of the 2016 award-winners. She prefers Carmen, a classic Italian bull’s horn pepper introduced by Johnny’s in 2004; it is the red version of Escamillo.

She said that Johnny’s would love to develop a sweet truly orange pepper to market alongside the red and yellow ones.

Out of curiosity, I asked Haga how a person becomes a vegetable breeder.

She went to the University of Wisconsin in Madison, near where she grew up. She had been interested in sustainable agriculture, but didn’t realize the school had a plant-breeding program until she enrolled at the university and signed up for the classes.

She was quick to say, however, that there are other ways to enter the field. The initial breeding of Cornito Giallo and Escamillo was done by Janika Eckert, who retired before they came to market and handed the final stages of the project over to Haga. Eckert had no formal training in plant breeding, but “learned through immersion” by working with Johnny’s founder Rob Johnston, Haga said. Eckert was also the breeder for the Carmen pepper.

A FULL LIST of All-America Selections winners is available at but one other winner that interested me is Tomato Candyland Red, a currant-type tomato introduced by PanAmerican Seed Company.

My interest is nostalgic.

Back in the 1990s, my wife and I grew the Maine Tomato Berry with seed from Tomato Tom’s Seed Supply Company in Sebago. We loved it. I even had the T-shirt. The super-sweet tomatoes were about the size of blueberries from high-bush plants.

Well, that seed disappeared from the market, and a phone call and email to the contact information I found for the company turned up nothing. I guess Tomato Tom is out of business.

While the T-shirt for the Candyland Red would not be as good for someone named Tom, I might just give that tiny tomato a try.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at [email protected].

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