The dispersal unit of many species of Brassicaceae is an indehiscent fruit, but relatively few studies have tested the effect of the pericarp on seed germination in this family. Our aim was to determine the effect of the pericarp on seed dormancy in six species of Brassicaceae native to the cold desert of north-west China. Intact dispersal units and isolated seeds of Chorispora sibirica, Euclidium syriacum, Goldbachia laevigata, Spirorrhynchus sabulosus, Sterigmostemum fuhaiense and Tauscheria lasiocarpa were stored dry at ambient laboratory conditions for 0–12 months and tested for germination in light and in dark at 5/2, 15/2 and 30/15°C. The amount of water absorbed by fruits and by seeds within the fruits was determined. For four species, intact fruits, isolated seeds and isolated seeds plus the removed pericarps were used to test for the mechanical versus possible chemical role of the pericarp in seed dormancy. Fresh isolated seeds, which have a fully developed embryo, germinated to lower percentages and rates than afterripened seeds. Thus, seeds have non-deep physiological dormancy. The pericarp significantly reduced germination, but inhibition was not due to lack of water uptake by seeds or to chemical inhibitors. Afterripened seeds of the six species germinated to 0–50% inside the fruits. We conclude that the pericarp plays a dominant role in seed dormancy of the six study species, and it does so by mechanically restricting embryo growth. Thus, the pericarp has the potential to spread germination over an extended period of time.