I was recently told by a neighbor that bell peppers have sexes and that the sex of the bell pepper determines how many seeds it contains and how sweet it is. Is this true? Is this some sort of plant kingdom sex scandal? Do bell peppers have a gender? Some say they do, I disagree but let’s look at peppers (one of my favorite Texas Garden staples) and see what we can learn.
The heat of peppers is measured in Scoville heat units. A green pepper scores a zero on the scale, jalapeño peppers earn around 2,500 to 4,000 and habaneros, 200,000 to 500,000 units. There are many different types of peppers, from sweet to flaming hot, making more than one variety useful in a single dish, adding complexity to the flavors. Popular pepper varieties include bell, Chile, banana, Hungarian, cayenne, jalapeño, Serrano, habaneros and others.
Below, after I talk a bit about the sex scandal, I'll summarize growing tips for bell peppers and hot chili peppers, both of which are useful additions to a well-stocked home garden. I personally grow many varieties of peppers, and I love them all. First however, I want to talk about the medicinal benefits that eating peppers offers us.
Sweet and mild-tasting bell peppers can be sautéed with onions or diced into salads, soups and casseroles; stuffed, grilled, placed on sandwiches, or eaten raw for a fresh snack. Green, red and yellow bell peppers all contain phenolic compounds, ascorbic acid, carotenoids and free radical scavenging activity.
Green peppers have the highest phenolic activity but lower carotenoid content than the red and yellow varieties. Red peppers have the highest ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and a higher level of free radical scavenging activity.
The active ingredient in hot chili peppers is capsaicin, which is what makes your mouth burn and gives the peppers their pungent odor. The smaller the pepper the hotter it tends to be. The endorphin rush capsaicin triggers makes this compound an effective remedy for pain and other medical conditions.
Research also suggests it helps shrink fat tissue, inhibits the growth of breast cancer cells, and may even reduce your risk of Parkinson's disease by nearly 20 percent when eaten regularly. Chili peppers also contain other beneficial bioactive plant compounds, including:
- Capsanthin. This is the primary carotenoid (antioxidant) in red chili peppers, giving them their red color and typically accounting for up to 50 percent of the spice's antioxidant content
- Lutein. Most plentiful in immature (green) chili peppers, it has been shown to help maintain and improve eye health
- Violaxanthin. It is the main carotenoid found in yellow chili peppers, which accounts for 37 to 68 percent of their total content
- Sinapic acid. Also known as sinapinic acid, this antioxidant is known for its neuroprotective potential
- Ferulic acid. This compound has shown promise in protecting against diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular diseases
The idea that bell peppers have a gender has been around for a while but only recently has it caught traction. According to the theory, there are distinct male and female peppers and the gender indicates whether a bell pepper has more seeds or whether it is better for cooking or eating raw. Interesting theory, but is it fact or fiction?
According to my friend and Texas A&M Department of Horticultural Sciences Professor, Kevin Crosby it is a total fiction! Yep, I knew it. There’s no such thing as bell pepper sexes. But, still, let’s break the urban legend down to make things more clear. First of all, the theory states that the lobes or bumps on the bottom of the fruit are the indicators of the bell pepper’s sex so that you can tell the fruit’s gender by counting them. Male bell peppers, according to the theory, have only three lobes while female bell peppers have four. See the photo below. These genders point to their best use case: Male bell peppers, the theory states, are better for cooking while female bell peppers are sweeter, contain more seeds, and better eaten raw.
The number of lobes that a bell pepper has is related to the variety of bell pepper. There are different varieties that produce different numbers of lobes. Some produce two, while others may produce between three and five lobes. The most popular variety of bell pepper in the U.S. produces four lobes so many plants have been selectively bred for this characteristic. Four lobed bell peppers may have more seeds, but only because they have more lobes, meaning more cavity space in which seeds can be grown. But even this is not 100% true all the time. Peppers can have a single chamber or multiple chambers containing the white pithy tissue with the seeds. Exactly how many chambers does not always indicate the number of seeds of the bell pepper, but more lobes might be a better guess if you are hunting for bell pepper seeds.
By the way, the sweetness of a pepper has nothing what-so-ever to do with the number of lobes on it. It has everything to do with your cultivated variety, the soil you’ve grown your peppers in, the weather, and, especially, how long you’ve left the fruits on the vine. Bell peppers that have aged form green to their mature red will be sweeter, no matter if they have three lobes or four.
There is one thing, however, about bell pepper gender that I do find interesting. The pepper plant creates “perfect flowers” also called hermaphroditic or unisex flowers. All plants of the nightshade family follow suit (tomatoes, eggplants, sweet peppers, chili peppers, etc.); their flowers contain both stamens and carpels – they have reproductive systems that are both male and female. Some other types of plants have male flowers as well as female flowers. Sometimes these flowers are on the same plant and sometimes they grow on separate plants. So, the real truth about pepper sex is that not only are bell peppers gender-less, the flowers of the bell pepper plant themselves are, in a simplistic way, all genders. This is a pepper that breaks down all barriers.
Regardless of the gender myth, I simply love bell peppers, particularly the brightly colored ones. Although they belong to the chili pepper family, bell peppers are mild and can jazz up a salad in an instant, lend a perky crunch to your pizza, and taste fantastic when roasted. But the appeal of bell peppers goes way beyond their stunning good looks. Here’s a short list of the good things they can do for your health:
- Bell peppers are low in calories! So, even if you eat one full cup of them, you get just about 45 calories. Bonus: that one cup will give you more than your daily quota of Vitamin A and C!
- They contain plenty of vitamin C, which powers up your immune system and keeps skin youthful. The highest amount of Vitamin C in a bell pepper is concentrated in the red variety.
- Red bell peppers contain several phytochemicals and carotenoids, particularly beta-carotene, which lavish you with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits.
- The capsaicin in bell peppers has multiple health benefits. Studies show that it reduces ‘bad’ cholesterol, controls diabetes, brings relief from pain and eases inflammation.
- If cooked for a short period on low heat, bell peppers retain most of their sweet, almost fruity flavor and flavonoid content, which is a powerful nutrient.
- The sulfur content in bell peppers makes them play a protective role in certain types of cancers.
- The bell pepper is a good source of Vitamin E, which is known to play a key role in keeping skin and hair looking youthful.
- Bell peppers also contain vitamin B6, which is essential for the health of the nervous system and helps renew cells.
- Certain enzymes in bell peppers, such as lutein, protect the eyes from cataracts and macular degeneration later in life.
- So, pop some bell peppers into your shopping basket, and start reaping their rich health benefits!
Whether you're growing bell peppers from seed or using store-bought seedlings, begin by selecting and preparing the site. Peppers need lots of sun and grow best in deep, loamy, well-drained soil where peppers have not previously been grown, so move them around your garden if growing several years in a row.
Add about 1 inch of compost to the soil, but avoid adding too much nitrogen, as this can cause excessively rapid growth, making the plants larger and bushier but less productive and more prone to disease.
If growing from seed, start the seeds indoors eight to 10 weeks before your last frost date. You can find frost dates for your local area by checking The Old Farmer's Almanac, which is available online. Soak the seeds in lukewarm water for a few hours and keep the seed tray in a warm spot to encourage germination.
Before you transplant your seedlings into your garden, gradually expose them to outdoor conditions. By reducing stress, the plants will become larger and more productive.
Begin by placing them in an area sheltered from high wind and excessive sun exposure for a few hours a day for three or four days once daytime temperatures are consistently in the mid-60s. Over the following week, slowly increase the number of hours you leave them outdoors. Pepper plants grow best in warm soil, so if the garden bed is still cool, warm the soil by placing a dark landscape paper over the area. Also make sure all threat of frost is over and nighttime temperatures are above 60 F before planting them in the ground.
Growing Bell Peppers: From Transplant to Harvest
Space the plants 12 to 16 inches apart and stake taller varieties to protect the stems from breaking as they grow. If planting several varieties, separate them by at least 500 feet to prevent cross-pollination. Also keep them separate from other plants in the nightshade family, such as tomatoes and eggplants.
Water frequently, giving the plants at least 1 inch of water per week, or up to 1 gallon per day during hot, dry weather, yes, up to a gallon! Adding mulch will help retain moisture and normalize the soil temperature and allow you to use far less water - so you just gotta’ mulch! Remember peppers do like warm soil, so if temperatures are on the low end, mulching can actually make the soil too cool, which will stunt growth.
If daytime temperatures are below the mid-80s you may also want to consider a covered dome to retain heat. Should the weather get too hot, on the other hand, you may need to provide some shade to protect the fruit from late afternoon sun that can lead to sun scald. Staking up a piece of shade cloth should be sufficient. Planting your peppers 12 to 16 inches apart will also allow the leaves of the plants to touch, creating a natural canopy to protect the fruit from excessive sun exposure.
As the plants grow and begin to bloom, pinch off the first early blossoms. While this may sound counter intuitive at first, but doing this will redirect the energy toward increased plant growth, allowing you to get more and larger fruits later in the season. Leaving these early blossoms on will result in just a few small, early fruits and a somewhat stunted plant.
Once the plant starts bearing fruit, side dress with organic fertilizer or better yet, compost. Phosphorous is needed for fruit production while too much nitrogen will cause the plant to grow too fast and produce less fruit, so make sure your fertilizer has more phosphorous than it does nitrogen.
Once the bell pepper has matured on the vine and is turning its designated color (whether yellow, red, green, purple, or whatever), harvest your peppers by cutting them off with hand pruners – so not pull or twist them off as this causes injury to the plant and opens a pathway for disease to enter. While they can be harvested at an immature stage and allowed to ripen on your counter, allowing them to fully ripen on the vine will improve the flavor.
Chili peppers, despite their fiery hotness, are one of the very popular spices known for their medicinal and health benefiting properties. Chili plant is a small, perennial shrub with a woody stem, growing up to a meter in height. It is native to the Central American region where it employed as one the main spice ingredients in Mexican cuisine for centuries. Later, it was introduced to the rest of the world by Spanish and Portuguese explorers during the 16th and 17th centuries. Today chili pepper is grown widely in many parts of the world as an important commercial crop.
Several cultivars of chili peppers grown all around the world. Depending upon cultivar type, it bears flowers which subsequently develop into fruit pods of variable size, shape, color, and pungency. Moreover, again, depending on the cultivar type, their hotness ranges from mild, fleshy (Mexican bell peppers) to fiery, tiny, Nag Jalokiya chili peppers of the Indian subcontinent. The hotness of chili measured in “Scoville heat units” (SHU). On the Scoville scale, a sweet bell pepper scores 0, a jalapeño pepper around 2,500-4,000 units, and Mexican habañeros may have 200,000 to 500,000 units.
- Chili pepper contains an impressive list of plants derived chemical compounds that are known to have disease preventing and health promoting properties.
- Chilies contain health benefiting an alkaloid compound, capsaicin, which gives them strong spicy, pungent character. Early laboratory studies on experimental mammals suggest that capsaicin has anti-bacterial, anti-carcinogenic, analgesic and anti-diabetic properties. It also found to reduce LDL cholesterol levels in obese.
- Fresh chili peppers, red and green, are a rich source of vitamin-C. 100 g fresh chilies provide about 143.7 µg or about 240% of RDA. Vitamin-C is a potent water-soluble antioxidant. It is essential for the collagen synthesis inside the human body. Collagen is one of the main structural protein required for maintaining the integrity of blood vessels, skin, organs, and bones. Regular consumption of foods rich in vitamin-C helps protect from scurvy, develop resistance against infectious agents (boosts immunity), and scavenge harmful, pro-inflammatory free radicals from the body.
- They are also good in other antioxidants such as vitamin-A, and flavonoids like ß-carotene, α -carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin, and cryptoxanthin. These antioxidant substances in capsicum help protect the body from injurious effects of free radicals generated during stress, diseases conditions.
- Chilies carry a good amount of minerals like potassium, manganese, iron, and magnesium. Potassium is an important component of cell and body fluids that helps controlling heart rate and blood pressure. The human body use manganese as a co-factor for the antioxidant enzyme, superoxide dismutase.
- Chilies are also good in the B-complex group of vitamins such as niacin, pyridoxine (vitamin B-6), riboflavin and thiamin (vitamin B-1). These vitamins are essential in the sense that human body requires them from external sources to replenish.
Growing chili peppers takes about six months so you should plant them by May, although starting early is recommended so the plant will ripen just in time for summer.
Here's a simple step-by-step guide for growing chilies:
- Fill a multi-cell seed tray with rich organic soil. Gently tamp it down and moisten with water. Place a seed in each cell, then lightly cover with a thin layer of soil. Water gently using a fine mist spray, then cover with cling wrap and store in a warm area of your home. The soil should be moist but not soaked.
- After two to four weeks, at the first sign of growth, move the seedlings to a warm, well-lit place, but out of direct sunlight. Water the plant from below to strengthen the roots, and check daily to ensure the surface is moist.
- Once the seedlings sprout a second set of leaves, transplant into 2- or 3-inch pots with moist soil and use liquid tomato as a weekly feeding.
- When the plants reach a height of 4 to 5 inches, transplant into larger pots, and stake the plants once they're 7 or 8 inches tall.
- Once the plants are about 12 inches tall, pinch off the tips right above the fifth set of leaves to encourage bushiness. Transplant to a larger pot if needed and make sure to check the plant daily for aphids. (If aphids are present, follow the instructions provided in the section below.)
- When flowers appear, gently dab a cotton swab into each flower to pollinate.
- Cut off the first chilies while still green to encourage fruiting all season long (July to October).
How to Deal with Aphids:
Aphids are really the only problem we typically face when growing peppers. Aphids are most often found in the folds between leaves. Simply spraying them off with cool water can help. Ladybugs and syrphid fly larvae (also known as hover flies or flower flies; often mistaken for bees and wasps) are natural predators that can quickly suppress an aphids infestation. You can tell you have active syrphid fly populations in your garden if you see black oily smears on plant foliage. This is the excrement of the larvae.
The chilling will slow the ladybug's metabolism, basically putting them to sleep for the night. As the sun warms them up in the morning, they'll start scavenging for food and laying eggs. So, even though many will fly away, the eggs will hatch larvae that continue feeding on the aphids, and the grown ladybugs will continue the life cycle of laying eggs and controlling pests in your garden.
You just gotta’ love lay bugs!