If you started your hot and sweet peppers inside this spring, you are probably beginning to see flowers and young fruit. In our garden, the Cayenne peppers were the first to fruit, exceeding the flowering time of the Ozark Giants, the California Wonders and the variegated Fish peppers by more than three weeks! I’ve already tagged these early fruits for seed production, specifically because they did fruit so early – a characteristic I want to see perpetuated in my future cayenne crops. By selecting those very first fruits for seed saving, I have essentially ensured that at least some of the seeds I save will carry the genetic information needed for early fruit production. If you would like to learn more about how to save your own hot and sweet pepper seeds, this week’s Show Me Oz is for you!
Before you rush out to the garden to save your seeds, I’d like to take a moment to talk a bit about peppers. If you’ve read my previous articles on seed saving, you will know that I’m a stickler for understanding relationships. No, not our relationships – the relationship of plants in the garden and of peppers, in particular! Most beginner’s don’t think much about the relationships of plants before attempting to save their seed. But failure to understand how each plant reproduces is the number one reason that seed saving attempts fail.
If you would like to learn more about plant relationships and why they are so important, check out my article Winter Seed Saving: Pumpkins and Squash or read my book, The Garden Seed Saving Guide: Seed Saving for Everyone.
As always, we must start at the beginning.
All peppers, be they hot or sweet or somewhere in between, belong to the Nightshade or Solanaceae family. In addition to peppers, this large family includes garden tomatoes, eggplant and potatoes. It also contains numerous (and highly toxic) wild and ornamental plants such as flowering tobacco, petunia, deadly nightshade and Datura.
In addition to being Nightshades, all peppers belong to the genus Capsicum. The genus is then further divided into five domestic species: annuum, baccatum, chinense, frutescens and pubescens. It is important to point out that almost all of the peppers you will ever grow will be Capsicum annum. In fact, very few of the 25-30 cultivated pepper species in the world belong to another species of Capsicum. A few non-annum species include the infamous Kellu Uchu (C. baccatum), Tabasco (C. frutescens) and Manzano (C. pubescens).
If two peppers don’t share the same genus and species, they can not cross-pollinate one another. Unfortunately, 99% of all peppers grown in the home garden belong to the same exact genus and species – Capsicum annum. This essentially assures that almost all of the peppers we grow in our gardens have the ability to cross-pollinate one another; handily destroying the genetic makeup of named varieties. In other words, if you grow a California Wonder and a Ozark Giant in the same garden, they could pollinate one another and produce seeds (babies) that will grow up to be Ozark California Giant Wonder Something-or-Another. They will no longer be true to their individual varieties like their parents were, but a hybrid of the two. That’s usually a bad thing.
Therefore, it is very important to know if your peppers are C. annum or one of the other four species, so you can keep them apart.
The cool thing about peppers is they have perfect, self pollinating flowers. Flowers like this tend to achieve internal pollination before the flowers ever open and therefore, don’t easily cross-pollinate. But that’s not to say that they can’t – it’s just less likely that they will. However, recent studies have proven that peppers cross-pollinate much more readily than once thought. Therefore, it is important to separate groups of pepper varieties within the garden by approximately ten feet and another crop. This works well for the average seed saver, but crop farmers and anyone growing extremely rare peppers should allow up to 50 feet between varieties.
If space is limited in your garden, plant blocks or rows of peppers separated by another crop such as eggplant or beans. And where heavy pollinator activity is present, add an extra row between varieties, just to be sure. In peppers, hot genes dominate those of sweet. So, at the very least, be sure isolate sweet varieties from hot ones.
Of course, you can’t collect the seeds of peppers until the fruits are ripe. A completely ripe pepper is one that has achieved full mature coloration (i.e. red, purple, orange, white) and whose flesh has begun to soften. When possible, peppers should be allowed to ripen fully on the plant. If this is not possible, they should at least have a blush of ripe color before being picked and ripened completely indoors.
To harvest the seeds of peppers, simply cut the pepper in half and pull out the core and seeds. Rub the seeds gently from the core into a bowl. Rinsing is not absolutely necessary, but when pepper seeds are placed in water and gently stirred, mature seeds will sink to the bottom and the chaff and immature seeds will float to the top. Pour off the chaff and immature seeds, repeating as necessary until clean. Drain the seeds in a mesh strainer set on absorbent toweling before spreading them out on a glass or metallic dish to dry. Never dry seeds in the sun, the heat can kill the embryo within very quickly. When seeds are properly dried, they will snap break when folded in half.
So head on out to the garden and see what kind of peppers you have and how close they are together. If you planted two varieties of peppers in the same row (half on one side and half on the other), you might still be able to get away with saving the seeds from a few plants at the very opposite ends of the row. And if you find a particular plant that’s doing exceptionally well – like my early cayenne – then be sure to save a few seeds from that plant. You’ll be glad you did!
Saving open-pollinated and heirloom garden seeds saves money, increases self-sufficiency and preserves open-pollinated food crops. Learn how in less than 60 pages! Find out which seeds are easiest to save, why saving seeds preserves genetic diversity, easy hand-pollination techniques for beginners, and the right way to harvest, clean, and store seeds at home and more!