Can bell peppers turn hot?

Q. My neighbor said he planted his sweet bell peppers next to his habanero peppers, and the bell peppers he harvested were hot and spicy instead of sweet. I like hot peppers, but my husband can eat only sweet peppers. I am afraid to plant hot peppers in my garden now. Is there any truth to this?

Sandy from Struthers

A. Planting hot and sweet peppers side by side the same year will not cause the sweet pepper to have a surprisingly hot taste. While your neighbor may think he got a hot pepper from a sweet plant, this is simply not true for the current year’s pepper crop.

But there is some truth to your neighbor’s statement. If the seeds from this “cross-pollinated” pepper are saved, the resulting plants could produce hot-tasting bell peppers next year.

To understand what is going on, we need to understand pollination of peppers. For the most part, pepper flowers are self-pollinating. They do occasionally cross-pollinate though, but only a couple of peppers would be affected.

The seeds of these cross-pollinated peppers may contain the gene that produces capsaicin, inherited from the hot pepper plant. But that gene is not expressed in the current year’s production — it is only a gene in the seed.

Capsaicin is the compound that creates the burning sensation in a person’s mouth once a hot pepper is consumed. Some peppers can be ferociously hot enough to cause strong, violent reactions. If seed is saved from the sweet peppers and planted the following the year (assuming cross-pollination has occurred this year), traits from the hot peppers may be present and may surprise the person eating what looks like a bell pepper.

So do not be afraid to plant your peppers side by side, just don’t save the seed expecting to get the same exact pepper with the same characteristics next year.

Jason Baker, OSU Extension Summer Intern and Master Gardener Volunteer.

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