Vegetable Sex

Girl eggplants? Boy eggplants? Peppers with three lobes—or four? Does one taste better than the other? Is one for cooking and the other for eating raw? And what does all this have to do with plant sex?

As I’ve been perusing Pinterest and adding things to my “Bad Advice” board, I discovered a bunch of discussion about “male” vs. “female” eggplants and peppers. We’re talking about the fruit—the eggplants or peppers that we eat—not the individual plants on which the veggies grew. I hate to burst their bubble, but eggplants and peppers don’t have gender. (Actually, the plants are’t male or female, either.)

Here is one example:

pepper sex

This whole idea is nonsense. Let me explain:

First we need to talk about flowers:

flower parts

You can ignore most of this diagram, but notice that the flower has female parts—an ovary (think “plant womb”)  and the ovules (think “plant eggs”) it contains. These ovules are fertilized by pollen (think “plant sperm”) from the male flower parts. Once fertilization takes place, the ovary enlarges to house the developing seeds. A zucchini or apple—or eggplant or pepper—is merely an enlarged ovary full of seeds.

The ovary cannot be male, as it is the female part of the flower.

2012-05-031Apparently, someone decided that eggplants with a round “innie” flower scar (the eggplant on the left) are “female,” while those with just a line (the eggplant on the right) are “male”—and then they decided that the “innie” fruit are tastier because they are “female.” As you are now an expert in eggplant sex, it should be clear that the male and female designations are meaningless in this case. Eggplants can’t be male or female. They are just fruit in the same way that an orange or a tomato is botanically a fruit. They may be the result of sex, but they do not have different sexes. And while the shape of the scar may be genetically related to the eating quality of the fruit (anyone want to conduct a double-blind taste test?), it has nothing to do with gender.

Similarly, the number of lobes on a pepper is pure genetics. Not gender. It just depends on the cultivar, or variety, of peppers you are growing. Breeders aim for four lobes because the peppers stand up better in the pan when stuffed. That’s all. And for the rest of the claim above, all peppers are full of seeds. That’s because peppers are enlarged ovaries, and ovaries are where seeds grow.

2 thoughts on “Vegetable Sex

  1. Leslie, I wish you could do a “snopes” for gardeners! These sorts of advice based on falsehoods drive me nuts because some of them I can debunk if I think about it (like this one) and some of them I’m not sure are useful (like some of the dubious organic gardening instructions of dealing with bugs and weeds). Keep up the good work!

    • Thanks! I’d love to do a snopes type site for gardening! One good resource I appreciate is the Garden Professors on Facebook. They focus on gardening practices that are based on research. No myths allowed.

      I’d be delighted if you’d send me questions you come across. I can always use ideas for future posts.

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