Saving Pepper Seeds

Spice up your vegetable garden by mastering these simple methods for saving your own pepper seeds to plant next year.

| Winter 2016-17

  • Peppers are remarkably beautiful fruits, and they display a remarkable variety of colors, shapes and sizes.
    Photo by istock/Alasdair Thomson
  • Perfectly preserved Capsicum annuum seeds.
    Photo courtesy Seed Savers Exchange
  • Pepper varieties with exserted stigmas are more prone to out-crossing.
    Photo courtesy Seed Savers Exchange
  • Diminutive chiltepins (wild chile peppers).
    Photo by Flickr/Manuel
  • Habanero peppers can be air-dried.
    Photo by Fotolia/Michael Flippo
  • Chiles are strung together and hung to dry in ristras in the Desert Southwest.
    Photo by istock/tinafields
  • Wear gloves when slicing jalapenos.
    Photo by istock/modesigns58

From sweet bell peppers and mild poblanos to jalapeños and fiery habaneros, an amazing diversity of peppers can be grown in the vegetable garden — and saving pepper seeds is possible for many gardeners who wish to preserve variety in their gardens as well as save money.

Five domesticated species in the genus Capsicum are grown for their edible and ornamental fruits. Understanding their relationship to one another is crucial for the production of true-to-type seeds. Of the five species, three of them — C. annuum, C. frutescens, and C. chinense — are generally interfertile and are collectively known as the Capsicum annuum complex. They are able to cross-pollinate and so require isolation from each other. The other two species are less popular among gardeners. Of these two, C. baccatum may cross-pollinate with plants of the C. annuum complex, but C. pubescens will reproduce only with members of its own species. Because it’s relatively simple to isolate peppers by containment, gardeners often save seeds of many pepper varieties in one season.

Types of Peppers

Peppers are primarily grown for their edible fruits, which are consumed either while green and immature or after they’ve ripened. Additionally, dried peppers can be ground into spices, such as Hungarian paprika and chili powder. Peppers were originally classified into species based on morphology, and flower color was used at one time as part of the process of identifying Capsicum species, but these physical characteristics don’t correspond well to the sexual compatibility of the different types of peppers. Most domesticated peppers have purple flowers, solid white flowers, or white flowers with yellow spots.

Pepper types are often classified by the color, shape, size, and the thickness of the walls of their fruits, as well as their heat — that is, the intensity of their spicy flavor. Peppers’ heat comes from the compound capsaicin and is produced in the fruit’s placenta. Peppers are typically elongated but can range in size from diminutive chiltepins (wild chiles, pictured in slideshow) to 12-inch-long cayenne types. Fruits range in color from yellow, orange, and red to green and purple. There’s an almost endless range of market types of peppers, including sweet bells, anchos, frying peppers, tabasco peppers, serranos, and Thai chiles.

A Peppery Past

Part of the confusion about the relationship between the three species in the Capsicum annuum complex and the other two cultivated species, C. baccatum and C. pubescens, may stem from the fact that there were multiple domestication events for many of these species, and many wild Capsicum relatives were grown alongside these domesticated crops 8,000 years ago. Members of the C. annuum complex were most likely domesticated originally in regions of South and Central America. C. baccatum was domesticated at least twice, in western and eastern South America. C. pubescens was most likely domesticated only once, near modern-day Bolivia. From their centers of origin, peppers moved northward to the Caribbean and North America. In the 16th century, Spanish boats brought pepper seeds west to the Philippines, while Portuguese boats brought seed east to Africa, India, and Southeast Asia. Most of the chile peppers introduced to Europe didn’t come directly from the Americas but from India, Asia, and Africa via Turkish trading routes.

Growing Peppers for Seed

While perennial in tropical regions, peppers are generally treated as an annual crop in temperate and subtropical climates. Peppers germinate and grow best when soil temperature is above 75 degrees Fahrenheit. In most regions of the country, peppers are started indoors to provide the warmth they need and are transplanted out as weather becomes more suitable for growth. Plants are spaced the same in the garden whether being grown for eating or for seed saving. Viable seeds can be collected only from fruits that reach physiological maturity; many pepper varieties won’t have time to ripen in cooler or short-season climates.

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