Posing a pepper puzzle

I have a horticultural mystery on my hands, and it’s weird, weird, weird.

One of the plants that seems to thrive in our hydroponic system is peppers. Although they’re a little tall and weedy, they’re nice and green, with lots of flowers. Until about a week ago, I thought we were going to have a bumper crop of those long, skinny Portuguese hot peppers.

Then I noticed that something nasty was happening to the skinny ends of the peppers. They were turning brown and shriveling.

I looked more closely, and I could see how it developed. It started as a small brown spot, just where the pepper bends, about an inch from the bottom. Always just there – nowhere else. Then the end of the pepper turns brown, then black, then shrivelly. The pestilence then creeps up the body of the pepper.

I took one pepper to the farmer who’s been helping us with our hydroponics, and he was stumped. There were some mites on the pepper I brought him, and he thought it was possible an insect was laying eggs, and the eggs were hatching and the little insects muching on the pepper flesh. When I checked other peppers, though, I didn’t find insects, so it may have been a coincidence.

I then trotted my diseased peppers over to the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension in Barnstable, where they mystified everyone. “Never seen that,” said one master gardener with twenty-five years experience growing peppers under his belt. That is to say, the experience was under his belt. The peppers were in his garden. He thought it was possible our peppers were overwatered. “They like it a little drier,” he said.

Another Cooperative Extension staffer speculated that it could be a nutrient deficiency. Lack of calcium?

I thought this sounded entirely reasonable. Our fertilizer is Peters Professional Hydro-Sol 5-11-26. It contains magnesium, sulfur, boron, copper, iron, manganese, molybdenum, and zinc. A close look at the label indicates that you’re supposed to add calcium nitrate to your mix. Oops.

Further investigation reveals that calcium deficiency can lead to blossom end rot, which starts as little shrivelly areas near the skinny end of the pepper. Hmmm. It’s also supposed to make the leaves crinkly and bunched up, and we don’t have that problem, but I suspect nutrient deficiencies don’t always manifest themselves in exactly the same way.

So that’s my working hypothesis: calcium deficiency leading to blossom end rot. But here’s the weird thing – it always starts in the bend of the pepper. There are a couple of peppers that don’t have a bend, they’re straight all the way to the end, and they seem to be fine. What’s up with that? Can peppers have joint diseases? Rheumatoid arthritis, perhaps?

I’ll be fortifying our hydroponic mix with calcium post haste, but if you’ve seen this kind of thing before and can tell me definitely what it is and what to do about it, you’ll win my undying gratitude and maybe even a jar of my home-made Cape Cod sea salt.

16 people are having a conversation about “Posing a pepper puzzle

  1. Tamar, blossom end rot is common in hydroponic tomatoes and peppers…at least it is down where I am…and that looks like plain old blossom end rot to me. (I grow my indoor plants in a simple hydroculture, with one ornamental and a potted banana in soil.) In hydroponics, calcium in the nutrients is one thing, but the temperature of the nutrients and whether you have “hard” tap water can also affect the plant’s calcium uptake, regardless of how much calcium is added to the nutrients.

    I’m not sure how much adding nutrients to the solution now would help mature plants, or counteract oxygenation issues (I would still do it…can’t hurt). Try to see if you can get one that also doubles as a foliar spray (something close to 1.0% calcium nitrate or 0.4% calcium chloride).

    My hdyro orchids are much easier than your peppers. I bet the folks at GardenWeb would have some insight for you: http://forums.gardenweb.com/forums/hydro/

  2. Having never grown peppers and never grown anything hydroponically, I’m clueless – but I wish I knew so I could earn that jar of sea salt.

    Would you consider trading one for a jar of Carolina Mountain honey from my very own bees? 😉

  3. These posts are like catnip. I can’t resist a P&D picture.

    I worked for a specialist pepper grower and I remember peppers can get blossom end rot, which is usually associated with calcium deficiency. If it’s BER, the end of the pepper will feel toughened, leathery. But the very tip should be affected, and that pepper looks OK on the blossom end. The disease seems to have taken hold slightly higher up

    If it started as a roundish spot that grew from the centre, and the rot feels mushy and soft, it’s probably just a common old bacterial rot. Rots are more common in wet environments, worse if you have N-K imbalance. If only one or two are affected, pick them quick and don’t compost them (I’d eat the top if the rot hasn’t spread). If that variety is susceptible, then you know something for next year.

    I’m late for work but it was TOTALLY worth it.

  4. So, it looks like the $64,000 question is whether blossom end rot can begin at a point north of the blossom end. Virtually all my peppers have this, and not a one actually begins at the blossom end. They all begin at the crook in the pepper. No crook, no rot.

    Since none of us seems to have a better answer, I’ll stick with the plan to fortify with calcium (Yvette, I’ve read that foliar calcium isn’t the best way to go because the plants don’t absorb it and move it to the fruit).

    Ken, I dearly love a trade, but I’ve already traded for a goodly supply of honey. I’m sure we’ll find something, though!

    Jen, it starts as a dark brown/black soft spot, and then turns brittle and dried out as it spreads. It almost sounds like BER, but not quite.

    Goose, thanks for that link. I like it!

  5. Although I too though blossom end rot when I first saw it, it’s obviously on the end.

    What about sunburd? Out here in the CA central valley we actually have to shade the pepper fruit to keep the direct sun off on the hottest days. If the pepeer gets burned you get the start of a spot which eventually rots. I know you’ve got milder weather, but possible?

  6. First the squash and now this! I have the same problem with my poblano and sweet hungarian peppers. The brown spot starts at the center or crook of the pepper and slowly grows until it basically rots the whole pepper. I’ve been picking the rotten looking ones off when I see the spots form but whether or not that helps whatever problem this is from spreading-I don’t know. My kung pao, cayanne and serrano peppers aren’t affected at all. Darn this crazy growing season!

  7. To me this looks like anthracnose. It is a fungal disease which causes the fruit to develop spots that eventually rot away the entire fruit. If not anthracnose, i am betting on some other fungal disease. If it is something fungal, then before too long the plants are going to develop spots, too.

    I live in sunny So Cal, so it is rare we have summer weather cool and damp enough to support raging fungus, but I have heard that spraying the plants with a 50/50 mix of non fat milk and water can help with fungus.

    • Laura – I can attest that the spray on milk trick really works. I’ve used it successfully on g/h plants and outdoors to combat gooseberry mildew. Washing up liquid for aphids and milk for spores!

  8. The fungus is looking like a better explanation than blossom end rot. We’ve had a hut, humid spell that would be fungus-friendly, and it would make sense that it would start in the crook where moisture would settle.

    Laura, I will be delighted to send you a jar of sea salt. Send me an e-mail (tamar at starvingofftheland dot com) with your address. Meantime, I will dig the non-fat milk powder out of the freezer and give everything a good spritz.

    I really appreciate everyone’s helping out with this. I’ve learned a lot about BER, sun scald, ordinary rot, and, equally importantly, been reassured that I’m not alone.

  9. I wish I had peppers to rot. The slugs are really bad this year, and I don’t think it’s been nearly hot enough or sunny enough. Maybe August will be better.

    But now I know what to reread if I ever do get funny peppers!

  10. I’d put my hand up for blossom end rot too. it looks just like what happened to our farm when we first started – devestating. We foliar sprayed with blood and bone to correct the issue, as the leaves took the spray to the roots and corrected the soil. This isn’t much help for you though I would imagine in hydroponics. I do recall we lost all the fruit we had and had to wait for more flowers to set fruit before we saw the problem go away.

    Good luck!

  11. I also, unfortunately, come down on the side of anthracnose. Blossom end rot would sure be easier to fix.

    The best controls for anthracnose are preventative (and often harsh) and it’s a bit late for that. Two products that might be worth considering, now, or in the future:

    1. Greencure – This is a potassium bicarb (lot like baking powder) based fungicide and the heaviest hitter of my two suggestions. After pulling all infected peppers, this might help provide some control on your existing plants.

    2. Serenade – A Bacillus (friendly bacteria) based preventative fungicide. It stinks pretty bad when you spray, but it has done wonders in my garden for ensuring no disease rears its head in the first place. I use it every couple weeks starting when I plant and it has reduced my disease and fungal issues drastically here in humid Florida.

    Both products are organic controls and safe to use on food crops.

    I hope you get the problem worked out and harvest plenty of healthy peppers. Feel free to e-mail if I could possibly be of more assistance.

    Happy growing!

  12. Rick — Thanks for those suggestions. I must confess I’ve been eying the Daconil we used when we had late blight on the tomatoes. I’m going to try the nonfat milk first.

    I should add that Kevin believes in Jen’s initial theory, that it’s just plain old rot. It happened when the weather was very hot, and it’s possible it was too hot for a fungus but just right for ordinary rot.

    I’m not sure we’ll ever know.

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