The Bell Pepper Sex Scandal

Bell Pepper Sex Hoax imageBy Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz –

Have you seen this image floating around the internet claiming that one can determine the sex of a bell pepper by the number of bumps on the bottom?  Whoever posted the original image* claimed that those peppers that had four lobes were “female”, while those with only three lobes were “male”.   They expounded on their theory by explaining that “…female peppers are full of seeds, but sweeter and better for eating raw and the males are better for cooking.”  Is this true or just a mammoth hoax to burn away your precious time trying to find out?

I first saw this image last year, when it was posted on a local Facebook gardening group.  I added my two cents to the comments and promptly forgot all about it.  Then I saw it again on someone’s timeline, then again elsewhere.  In the last couple of months, I have received quite a few queries from readers, gardeners, and budding seed-savers asking which sex of pepper they should save seed from.

The short answer is that this bit of trot is absolutely false and you should ignore it entirely and continue treating all peppers the same way you always have, whether it be for growing, consuming, or seed saving.

The long answer is, uh, long – but it’s also much more interesting.

For starters, all peppers – hot or sweet, bell or chili – belong to the Nightshade family whose Latin botanical name is Solanaceae (pronounced so-lan-AY-see-ee or sometimes so-lan-AY-see-eye).  In addition to peppers, this family includes garden tomatoes, eggplant and potatoes.

All peppers – indeed, all Nightshade family members – have what are called “perfect” flowers.  Perfect flowers are “perfect” because each individual flower contains both male and female sexual reproductive organs (stamens and pistils).

Stand back, folks!  Pepper flowers are bisexual (or what botanists like to call hermaphroditic).

Here’s the rub.  You see, many plants actually do have individual male and female flowers – some have only one gender of flower and others have both.

So within the complex scope of plant reproduction, it is absolutely possible for certain plants to produce fruits of a specific gender (usually female).  But not the pepper.

And if the bell peppers shown in the leading image are actually  “male” and “female”, then what gender would this bell pepper - picked from my very own garden - be?

5-lobed bell pepper © 2013 Jill Henderson - Show Me Oz

The vegetables we know as peppers – in this case, bell peppers – are the fruits of Capsicum annuum.  The fruits contain ovaries, which in turn produce seed.  And each individual pepper is produced through the self-fertilization of a flower that is both male and female.

Each individual pepper contains one or more chambers (locules) and a central placenta (the white pithy part of the pepper) upon which seeds are born.   The number of chambers a pepper has is purely genetic and has no impact  on saving seeds, sweetness of flesh, or number of seeds produced.

Image via: http://waynesword.palomar.edu/ww0401.htm

Now that you know the fascinating details of how bell peppers produce seed, you are in a unique position to help others through this troubling bell pepper sex scandal and stop botanical hackers before they strike.  Oh, and you’re going to eat tons of great bell peppers, too!

Happy Gardening!

If you would like to delve deeper into the fascinating world of plant reproductive morphology, check out this very detailed Wikipedia page.

If you want to learn more about how to save seeds from peppers in your own garden, check out Seed Saving Time: Peppers.

* The header image was copyrighted by produceplanet.blogspot.com, which has since been deleted (and I bet I know why!)

© 2013 Jill Henderson


The Garden Seed Saving Guide by Jill Henderson
The Garden Seed Saving Guide

Whether you’re a weekend gardener, homesteader, or serious survivalist, saving seeds is a money saving skill that every green-thumb should to have. An excellent resource for beginners and experienced gardeners alike, The Garden Seed Saving Guide takes you step-by-step through every aspect of saving seeds. If you want to save money, become more self-sufficient and avoid genetically modified food crops, The Garden Seed Saving Guide is for you.  Available in the Show Me Oz Bookstore


Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill’s work has also appeared in The Permaculture Activist, The Essential Herbal, Acres USA, and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac.


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17 responses to “The Bell Pepper Sex Scandal

  1. Cute, but informative article!
    g-ruth

  2. As long as the peppers aren’t tweeting pictures of their private parts, I don’t really care if they have three, four or five “bumps” on their bottoms.

    • I’m with Connie! That was a fun post Jill, and informative with it. Got to keep our critical thinking skills honed for this internet world.

  3. I usually just check for a penis.

  4. LOL Y’all are making me laugh!

  5. excellent article btw – informative and humorous

  6. Interesting commentary on parthenogenesis in the plant community! Once upon a time, the same self-fertilization applied to our ancient ancestors. (I’ll avoid pursuing any humor contained in this thought.)

    In any case, could you please provide your informed commentary on how the GMO industry is affecting bell peppers, and to what extent these crops are losing nutrition and becoming toxic. I just authored a book on the poison being planted by Monsanto and the chemical industry with their GMO (genetically modified organisms) seeds which are contaminating our food supply; and although I did not specifically discuss peppers, I may do so in a sequel. Thanks very much. Charles Sutherland

  7. LOL! That should quell the uprising of questions, Jill!

  8. Good article. This is knowledge everyone should have. Maybe you can clarify something for me.

    You say: “within the complex scope of plant reproduction, it is absolutely possible for certain plants to produce fruits of a specific gender (usually female).”

    To my understanding fruit gender is irrelevant. Shouldn’t gender considerations be limited to the seeds/flowers. Also, I find it surprising that some male flowers produce fruit. How common is this? I assume it is rare. Can you give an example of a plant that does this? I’ve heard papayas do and I remember hearing someone remark once that his papaya had no seeds. Also what part of the flower becomes fruit?

    • Thanks, Justin. I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

      While combing through various scientific papers on the likelihood of fruits having a specific gender, I found only one reference that indicated that a handful of plants do this and that those fruits are usually female. Unfortunately, I did not save that literature and cannot recall now which plant(s) it was referring to. But you’re right, discussions about gender in plants should be limited to flowers.

      I must point out that nowhere in this article did I say that male flowers produce fruit. As far as I know, male flowers do not ever produce fruit.

      As for the papaya, I am in no way an expert on this tropical fruit, but my understanding is that papaya trees are either male, female, or hermaphrodite. Hermaphrodites are the main source of commercial papaya production because they eliminate the need for separate male and female trees. But as far as I am aware, male papayas never set fruit.

      If I happen upon that literature I mentioned, I’ll be sure and post it here.

  9. You’re right. You didn’t mention male flowers producing fruit. I read that somewhere else in connection to this article. Anyway I look forward to your future posts.

  10. I agreed with you up until you got to the part about male fruits being possible from male flowers. A male flower does not have an ovary (carpel). A true fruit is, by definition, a swollen ovary. So tell me again how you get a male fruit? I don’t see how it matters what family peppers belong to or whether they produce male & female or bisexual flowers, a fruit is a female sex organ, so there can be no such thing as a male fruit

    • Thanks for your comments, Megan, but I think you misread the article in which I was contradicting a prolific misconception that bell pepper fruits have a gender. As was pointed out in earlier comments, nowhere in the article did I say that male fruits were possible from male flowers, nor did I mention male fruits of any kind. But you are right: male flowers don’t produce fruits. What I did say was that bell peppers have male and female sexual organs within each flower and that together they produce fruits of a non-specific gender. There are heated discussions among botanists about the gender of fruits. Some say that all fruits must be female since they contain ovaries and produce seed. Others assert that only flowers or seeds (produced by single-sex flowers) have a true gender. I see the reasoning in both, but I leave that for the pros to decide.

  11. What you said was “within the complex scope of plant reproduction, it is absolutely possible for certain plants to produce fruits of a specific gender (usually female). But not the pepper.”, which implies that, if they are usually female, then some of them must be some other sex. True fruits are derived from swollen ovary tissue. Sometimes, some other part of the plant swells up & become sweet instead, usually near the actual fruits so that animals will still disperse them. This does not make them male fruits, it makes them not true (pseudo) fruits. A couple of examples are strawberries & pineapples. In the strawberry, the part of the plant that swells is the receptacle (derived from stem tissue) that holds the ovary. The tiny “seeds” on the outside are the actual fruits. In the pineapple, the part that swells is an entire inflorescence. Is the ovary female? Sure, I guess. But its an organ, not an organism, so it really doesn’t have a true gender identity.

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