One of the Joys of Maturity
Earliest Red Sweet Peppers
We work pretty hard at preserving three good open pollinated vegetable varieties that are somewhat endangered. None of them could be called true heirlooms, as they were all developed and introduced about forty years ago. I've written previously about Japanese Long Pickling cucumbers and Earlirouge tomatoes, but never got around to writing about the most endangered of the three, the Earliest Red Sweet pepper.
The Earliest Red Sweet (ERS) pepper variety has a rather vague history. It apparently was introduced sometime in the 1970s, the years I began gardening. I've not been able to find any reference to who developed the variety, but have found an occasional reference to it being used in pepper breeding programs. Our original seed came from Stokes Seeds. After a failed experiment with farming, a divorce, and sitting out gardening for five years, I found that my ERS seed in frozen storage was no good. It wasn't until 2010 that I found a Seed Savers Exchange member preserving the variety and offering seed.
The ERS pepper variety produces medium sized, deep red peppers rather early in the growing season (65 days-to-maturity from transplants). The rather small size, compared to today's hybrids (Ace, Red Knight) probably accounts for the variety disappearing from seed catalogs. Also, it's earliness may have worked against it, as gardeners may have considered it an early-only pepper. We've found that the ERS variety grown all season on good soil produces an incredible abundance of peppers well into October!
After years of torturing ERS pepper plants in our East Garden plot that might be best described as a recovering, burnt out cornfield, we began growing the variety in the improved soil of our raised garden beds. While we got some good peppers when growing the variety on poor soil, we also had lots of miniature peppers, rot, and dropped fruit. Grown on good soil, the peppers began producing early in the season. A surprise for me was that the plants continued to grow in vigor and production the longer they were in the ground. They easily out produced our hybrid peppers in pepper flesh for freezing with their abundance of late fruit.
I should add an aside here. For years, our pepper plants, hybrid and open pollinated, would look healthy after transplanting. They'd bloom and sometimes set fruit, and then they'd begin to fade and die. A real luckshot for me was adding a bit of soluble seaweed powder to our plantings. Our pepper problems disappeared, as there apparently was some trace nutrient in the seaweed that our peppers needed but was missing in our soil!
While many pepper varieties have trouble going to full maturity (red or yellow) before rotting, the ERS variety doesn't seem to have that problem. We've occasionally seen a bit of bacterial spot on our ERS and other peppers, rather quickly corrected with a good fungicide.
Like tomatoes, early pepper harvest can be limited by blossom end rot. We've found that adding calcium to the soil, either with lime or ground egg shells, pretty well cures that problem. Do note, however, that blossom end rot is often a function of limited moisture uptake of tomato or pepper plants. An excellent University of California Cooperative Extension Service article by Cindy Fake, Managing Blossom End Rot in Tomatoes and Peppers, explains in layman's terms that blossom end rot is not only a calcium problem, but also a problem caused by variable soil moisture conditions. If you grow tomatoes and peppers and fight blossom end rot each season, this article may have some answers for you about controlling Blossom End Rot.
Saving ERS Seed
Saving open pollinated pepper seed is really easy. Once your ERS peppers are fully ripe (red), pick only the very best peppers for seed saving. Cut the sides off the pepper, revealing the center seed cavity. (You can still use the pepper flesh for fresh use or freezing.) Rub the seed with your thumbnail to release it from the pepper core. I use a paper plate with identifying information written on it in permanent marker to hold the seed. Spread the seed across the paper plate and let it dry for a week or so. Then place it in an envelope, aluminum foil, or however you wish to hold your saved seed and store it in a cool, dark place. We actually freeze our seed for long term storage, but we also work really hard at getting our seed very dry before doing so.
For more information on seed saving, the Vegetable Seed Saving Handbook has a nice page, Why Save Seeds, and offers basic seed saving information for a lot of vegetables. For just three bucks (plus shipping), Growing Garden Seeds: A Manual for Gardeners and Small Farmers by Johnny's Selected Seeds founder, Rob Johnston, Jr., is an excellent reference to have on ones shelf.
From Steve Wood, the at Senior Gardening