Eggplant Sex

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Girl eggplants? Boy eggplants? Does one taste better than the other? And what does all this have to do with plant sex?

In researching  my recent post on eggplant, I discovered a bunch of discussion about “male” vs. “female” eggplants. We’re talking about the fruit—the eggplants that we eat—not the individual plants on which the eggplants grew.

From a botanical point of view, this whole debate is nonsense. Let me explain:

Technically, eggplants are fruits, for the same reason tomatoes are fruits. They originate when ovules (the plant equivalent  of an animal’s eggs) are fertilized by pollen (the plant equivalent of sperm). Pollination happens in different ways, depending on the plant species.

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Some kinds of plants (holly, for example), have separate sexes. That is, there are female plants, and there are male plants. A male holly plant has flowers with anthers (but not a stigma). The stamen at the top of the anther produces pollen. A female holly plant has flowers with a stigma on top of an ovary (but not anthers). The ovary contains ovules. When a female flower is pollinated, the ovary becomes a berry and the ovules develop into seeds. In order to get the red berries, you need at least one male and one female holly, and all the berries will be on the female plant(s).

Other kinds of plants (cucumbers and squashes, for example) produce male and female flowers, but both flower sexes can be found on the same individual plant. Again, the female flowers have ovules inside them that are fertilized by pollen from the male flowers. The fruit that we eat—the cucumbers and squash, in this case—all are produced by the female flowers. A zucchini is merely an enlarged ovary full of seeds.

Still other kinds of plants have what are called “perfect” flowers. As you can see in the above illustration, these flowers contain both an ovary and ovules, and a stamen (a filament topped with anthers). Thus they make both seeds and pollen, and may be considered both male and female. Plants with perfect flowers may be self-fertile (pollen from a flower’s anthers can fertilize that same flower’s ovules), or they may have creative ways on making sure cross-pollination still takes place.

Some familiar veggies having perfect flowers are peas and beans, tomatoes, peppers, and yes, eggplant.

As I mentioned earlier, an eggplant is produced when fertilized ovules mature into seeds. The ovary gets bigger as the seeds grow. The eggplant “fruit” that we eat is actually the enlarged ovary.

Now who ever heard of a male ovary?

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.

Now don’t you wish you’d paid better attention in high school biology?
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Diagram: University of Illinois Extension

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