Peppers don’t really have a sex, in spite of a persistant myth that claims the contrary. Photo: www.amazon.com
Question: My grocer told me that you can tell male and female peppers apart by the number of lobes it has, but I don’t remember his explanation. What’s the difference between the two? And how are the different sexes used?
Answer: In fact, there is no such thing as a male or female pepper. It’s a garden myth like so many others. It’s really unfortunate that your grocer has been sharing this misinformation with his clients. Don’t hesitate to show him this blog.
The story behind this belief is that the typical bell pepper (Capsicum annuum) has 4 lobes (4 bumps at the base of the fruit and 4 compartments if you cut it open), but there are some varieties with only 3 lobes. And according to the myth, the pepper with 4 lobes would be a female and its taste would be sweeter, making it more interesting for eating raw, as in salads and sandwiches. The 3-lobed pepper would be male, with a more intense taste, and would be better suited to cooking.
Obviously, that’s simply not true and it’s easy to prove otherwise. Just cut the fruit open and look inside.
Are there seeds in the fruit? Of course! However, and if there are seeds, the fruit is essentially “pregnant.” So, the fruit can’t be male, can it? A male fruit (if such a thing existed) would have no seeds at all.
In fact, you can’t really talk about sex when it comes to a fruit. It’s just not sexual, nor more so than would be a finger or a toe on a human. And any botanist reading this would already have cringed when I suggested a fruit might be pregnant! Actually, the flower at the origin of pepper fruit was in fact bisexual: male and female. By extension, if you absolutely want to give a sex to a fruit, a bell pepper too would be bisexual.
What About the Number of Lobes?
In fact, bell peppers, other sweet peppers and hot peppers* (all simply forms of the highly variable species Capsicum annuum) may have 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6 lobes, even more. The number is largely determined by the genetics of the plant. The typical bell pepper, rather cubic in shape, has 4 lobes, but sometimes 3 or 5. There are 3-lobed sweet pepper lines (sweet Hungarian or banana peppers, for example, which do tend to be stronger in taste than the average bell), but they are less well known. The shape of the fruit has no direct effect on the taste and the fruit produced can used raw or cooked, regardless of the number of lobes.
*Hot peppers are hot because they contain more capsaicin, a chemical compound that irritates the taste buds, than sweet peppers, which may have little or none at all.
Each pepper strain (‘Olympus’, ‘California Wonder’, ‘Gourmet’, etc.) has its own taste. Obviously, some are sweeter than others. So, when you buy seeds or plants for your vegetable garden, read its description to see if the promised taste is one likely to suit you.
But there’s no need to mix sex into the equation!