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How to Remove Seed Coat from Seedlings (Helmet Heads)

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When you’re starting pepper plants, a common issue is the seed coat getting stuck on the seedling. If you do not remove it, the plant might fail to emerge, preventing photosynthesis and eventually death.

In this article, I’ll share my simple method for removing the seed coat from pepper seedlings. It doesn’t always work, but it definitely helps make the process easier.

Seed coat stuck on pepper seedling
A ‘hemlet head’ – seed coat stuck on pepper seedling.

What is a Seed Coat?

A seed coat, or seed husk, is the protective outer coating of a seed. These vary in shape and size depending on the type of plant in question.

For peppers, the seed coats are very susceptible to becoming stuck on seedlings when they sprout. This phenomenon is also known as “helmet heads” because the seed coat resembles a helmet covering the first set of plant leaves.

The first leaves on a seedling are known as the cotyledons (pronounced kah-duh-LEE-dun), which are the embryonic leaves. They provide the plant with energy to produce roots and a strong stem during early stage growth.

Seed coat stuck on seedling
Helmet head on pepper seedling.

For this reason, it is essential that you remove the seed coat that is stuck on the plants quickly. If the cotyledons do not receive light, the plant will likely not make it.

I take preventative measures to help reduce the number of seed coats that get stuck in the first place. But without fail, I always get a few each year. So let’s talk about how to remove the seed husks safely.


Removing the Seed Coat

The basic principle is to soften the seed coat that is stuck on your seedling. This will make the seed husk pliable and more manageable when attempting to remove it.

If you simply try to rip the seed coat from the seedling, you will likely break the stem at the base of the leaves, killing the plant. To avoid this, start by spritzing the seed coat that is stuck, ensuring that it is fully moistened with water.

Spritzing seed coat stuck on seedling
Spraying seed coat with water – this softens the seed coat.

Tip: Don’t let the seed coat dry out! If you have a fan running for aeration, turn it off during this process to ensure that the water is absorbed into the seed coat rather than evaporated into the air.

After about 10 minutes, the seed coat should be much more pliable and manageable. Using your thumb and pointer finger, try to gently wiggle the seed coat from the seedling.

Removing seed coat from seedling
Removing seed coat from seedling.

If the seed husk is still stiff, spritz it again and wait another 10 minutes. Allow the seed coat to be completely moistened before pulling it free. Once it is properly saturated, the seed coat should come off much more easily.

Removing seed coat from seedling
Seed coat removed from seedling.

Some will be more difficult than others to remove. If the entire cotyledons are covered by the seed, you may not be able to remove it without taking the leaves with it. If this happens, the plant will not survive.

Seed coat softened
Moist, pliable seed coat successfully removed.

Don’t try to rush this process, especially if you only have one plant that has sprouted. I think of this as working like a surgeon. I like to bring the plant to a comfortable location where I can be as precise and calm as possible.


Preventing Seed Coat Sticking

The best way to deal with seed coats getting stuck is to prevent it in the first place. This problem usually occurs when conditions in the soil medium are dry.

When the seed coat is stiff during germination, shedding it during sprouting is more difficult for the plant. It can be tricky to avoid it in a dry indoor environment during late winter.

Tips to avoid seed coats sticking:

  • Spray the soil surface daily during germination
  • Use humidity domes to keep germinating seeds from drying out
  • Spray the seedling sprouts when they begin to emerge to soften the seed coat
Pepper seedling emerging from soil
When seedlings begin to emerge, spray with water to help them shed the seed coat!

The first time you see a seed coat stuck, it can be confusing. Did I do something wrong? Is my plant okay? Thankfully, with some careful handiwork, it is a simple fix that gets easier every time you do it.

This is another reason that I recommend planting multiple seeds in each seed cell. If one of the sprouts is lost to this issue, at least you’ll have a backup plant!

Removing Stuck Seed Coats (Video)


I hope this article helps you deal with seed coats getting stuck on your pepper plants. This same technique works well for other plants, too. If you have any questions, let me know below.

Calvin Thumbnail

Calvin

One of the original Pepper Geeks! When Calvin isn’t gardening or learning more about peppers and botany, he might be traveling new places or playing some music.

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5 Comments

  1. I read this just in the nick of time. I thought for sure I did something wrong. I will use this method going forward.

  2. I think I have pretty much learned how to avoid this issue in both peppers and tomatoes. Since I’ve started using these techniques, the “helmet head” problem has nearly disappeared.

    1) moderately moisten and thoroughly mix the seed starting soil before planting in it

    2) plant seeds under 1/4″ to 3/8″ (7-10 mm) of soil lightly tamped down

    Consistent watering (and not over-watering) is also important as noted by Calvin.

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