Henning Pedersen: ‘It’s in our genes to try and improve what we’ve got’

His father started it 25 years ago – capsicum breeding – just because he wanted to have good quality plants for personal use. Henning Pedersen took it to the next level. Making a start with the breeding of capsicum isn’t difficult, explains the Dane when he shows us around his nursery in the town of Hørning. Anyone can cross two plants and that cross will lead to all sorts of different varieties. The challenge is to develop a uniform and stable line.

We had already met Pedersen at Handelspladsen in Odense the previous day and we agreed that during our visit to his nursery, we’d focus on capsicum. It’s one of the most important products of his company. In addition to the breeding activities, Henning Pedersen also propagates capsicum. He supplies the seeds to Takii, who sells it to various growers. In summer, he produces capsicum at his own nursery too. In fact, it’s the main product in his greenhouse: 100,000 10-cm pots and 200,000 6-cm pots.

The next biggest product in the greenhouse after capsicum is primrose. And in spring he grows 400,000 perennials in 2-litre pots outdoors. In addition to primrose, he also has forced perennials in the greenhouse. And in addition to capsicum, Pedersen breeds a few other crops too. Like the various potted vegetable plants that was showing at Handelspladsen. The potted beetroot plant in particular, attracted a lot of attention. But we’re here to talk about capsicum.

As soon as we enter the greenhouse, we can see that he uses drought stress as a way to keep the capsicum plants short. “In the Netherlands, growers tend to use a more traditional method. They spray their plants twice a week to keep them short. We use drought stress instead. The end result is a different plant. I don’t know why the Dutch stick to the old method. I believe that chemicals will no longer be available in the future.” Pedersen only uses a small amount of chemicals in the initial phase, to avoid problems with thrips. “Otherwise, we’d lose the plants immediately after potting them.”

One of a few

Pedersen says he isn’t the only capsicum grower in Denmark. There are three others. He’s one of very few breeders, though. He supplies to Takii and he believes that there’s one other breeder, who supplies to Ball. It may seem simple, this capsicum breeding. Buy a mix of capsicum varieties, cross them and you’ll get more varieties. And spontaneous mutation is very common for capsicum plants. Success guaranteed, you’d say.

“But the challenge is to create uniform and stable lines”, explains Pedersen. “I’ve seen quite a few growers who tried to produce seed in-house. But their cultivars weren’t consistent enough. After two years, all sorts of abnormalities started to occur.” In Pedersen’s greenhouse, a new line is tested extensively before it’s scaled up to produce seed for Takii. Each year, they pick the best plants from the various test lines. And they select between the lines as well. It takes three to five years for Pedersen to know whether a line is successful or not.

A number of different qualities play a role in the breeding process. The most important are: the fruits shouldn’t shrink, the fruits should present themselves above the leaf, the leaf should be strong and dark green and the eventual colour of the fruits should be bright. “Purple fruit tends to go brownish. That could be an issue”, explains Pedersen, who says he’s considering launching an edible variety.

Capsicum is mostly sold as a mix. The biggest end customers are supermarkets and they always want capsicum in a mix. That means that every line must be produced in a range of colours. Usually four to six. Yellow, orange and red are the most popular. Followed by purple-red and purple-orange.

More retail

Pedersen’s greenhouse is filled with a wide range of shapes and colours. But there isn’t much demand for specialities, according to the Danish grower. “The potential for new varieties is decreasing. Buyers are asking for new varieties, but retailers aren’t interested. They just want the capsicum mix to look good in the shop.” There are a few florists who sell capsicum and they do ask for specialities, but that isn’t enough to start full production. Most of the capsicum plants are already distributed via retail and their share is increasing more and more.

So, why would you still engage in breeding activities, when the end customer isn’t interested in new varieties? Pedersen: “Because it’s a fun thing to do and it’s in our genes to improve what we’ve got. Looking at the end customer, there is a schism indeed. They aren’t asking for new varieties. But new varieties offer opportunities. Like trying to improve presentation and shelf life. We’ve got to try and deliver a product that the consumer likes.”

Out of the 8-10 million seeds that Pedersen produces for Takii each year, he estimates that about half ends up with European growers. The other half goes to different continents. According to Pedersen, the European capsicum production is stable. Around 10 million plants are cultivated each year. But in South America, Asia and the United States, the interest is growing. It’s a perfect product for Halloween time in the USA. And in Asia and South America, the plant is becoming a popular choice for landscaping.

Wooden greenhouse

So, Pedersen has noticed that the global market is growing. One of the reasons for the increasing popularity is the fact that the plant can be kept outdoors, too. “We all used to consider capsicum an indoor plant, but nowadays, it’s more and more considered a patio plant, attractive until the beginning of December. When the frost comes, the plant will lose its leaves, but the fruit stays.”

Pedersen has also noticed that capsicum combines well with grasses and ivy. He indicates that Salsa is the most popular variety in Europe. Mambo is more important on other continents. Mambo is also the variety of which Pedersen supplies the most seeds to Takii.

Pedersen joined the family business in 1988. The wooden greenhouse dates back to 1970, the other greenhouses were added in the eighties. He isn’t sure how things are going to develop in the future. “So far, my children haven’t shown any interest in taking over the nursery. Just like in the Netherlands, the lack of successors is a common problem in the horticultural sector here too. But I’ve got some very good employees. So, who knows! Perhaps someone from outside the family will take over the business.”

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