Eggplants — also known as aubergines (o¯-b r-'zhe¯n), Guinea squash or brinjal — are true world travelers. Hailing from the steamy jungles of southern and southeastern Asia, their wild brethren still grow there, sporting small, bitter fruit on branches wickedly armed with thorns. Today, eggplants grow on every continent but one — Antarctica.
The edible eggplant (Solanum melongena) shares a family album with garden huckleberries, potatoes, and deadly nightshade, nearly all of which have been considered poisonous at one time or another. Eggplant’s larger family, Solanaceae, contains more than 2,000 species. It includes such garden rock stars as hot and sweet peppers and tomatoes, as well as unsung heroes tomatillos and ground cherries. Other crops include pepinos, tamarillos, naranjillos and cape gooseberries.
Solanaceae family members tend toward high levels of alkaloid compounds, showing a tendency for bitterness, and, in the case of deadly nightshade, a reputation for lethal poison. Wild eggplants contain such high levels of these compounds they are nearly inedible. Most of this bitterness has been bred out of cultivated varieties, but at a price. While garden eggplants are a favorite of insect pests, their wild brethren enjoy near complete bug immunity.
Uncertain eggplant origin
Eggplant’s origin may be well-known, but its point of domestication remains murky. Many put its birthplace in India. Evidence exists, however, for China, Burma, Thailand, pretty much anywhere across Southeast Asia, even into Indonesia. It’s possible that domesticated eggplants have two or more birthplaces.
Ancient Indian Sanskrit texts mention eggplants as early as the year 300, although whether A.D. or B.C. isn’t exactly clear. Let me rephrase that: The texts from 300 A.D. definitely refer to cultivated eggplants, while the ones from 300 B.C. are open to interpretation. There are, however, definite Chinese references to eggplant from 59 B.C. By the eighth century, the eggplant had found its way east to Japan, completing the spread throughout Southeast Asia.
First East, then West. We can thank the Persians for bringing eggplants to the Middle East and the Mediterranean. When exactly is uncertain, but Persian literature mentions them by the 10th century. Surprisingly, the Ancient Greeks and Romans apparently missed out on enjoying eggplant, as Europe had to wait until the Muslim Expansion brought the plants to Italy and Spain in the seventh and eighth centuries. Take note that this is a full two centuries before the Persians got around to actually writing about them.
Eggplants slowly spread across Europe throughout the Medieval and Renaissance periods. German herbalists were discussing eggplants by the mid-13th century, while Italian artworks began featuring the fruit by the 14th century. However, eggplants were strictly ornamental and didn’t find their way to the European dinner table until the 16th century.
Eggplant varieties made their way to the Western Hemisphere on at least three different occasions. Spanish explorers carried them across the Atlantic to the New World throughout the Age of Exploration. Later, slave ships brought them to the southeastern coast under the name “Guinea squash.” Finally, Thomas Jefferson introduced eggplants to the rest of the fledgling United States, growing them at Monticello as early as 1806.
Eggplants have had to deal with a bad reputation throughout history. While Indian culture considered eggplants to be the “king of vegetables,” Chinese writers spent centuries debating whether eggplants were food, poison or medicine. Apparently, Persians and ancient Arabians were even more divided on the subject, blaming it for hundreds of maladies from pimples and black bile to leprosy and epilepsy, all while devising hundreds of sumptuous dishes for the fruit.
Then European thinkers took on the “evil” eggplant, accusing it of the most insane crimes. Literally. Eating mala insana, or “mad apples,” could cause instant insanity. Consuming these “love apples” could send even the most civilized diner into uncontrollable fits of passion. And everybody knew, without question, that werewolves and shape shifters ate these “wolf peaches” on a regular basis. All these myths came out of a belief that eggplants were dangerous because the vegetable had the great misfortune of being related to deadly nightshade. If you noticed the shared common names, popular opinion held that tomatoes also caused poisonous bouts of lust and mania. Somehow, the truly toxic member of the family, tobacco, managed to maintain a spotless and even healthful reputation for centuries.
Gardeners who remember the eggplant’s tropical origins will be well-rewarded with happy and highly productive plants. Starting eggplants indoors using a heat mat to ensure soil temperatures in the 80- to 90-degree Fahrenheit range will guarantee a healthy environment for seed germination. Don’t rush moving them outside, either. Prepare the delicate seedlings by placing them outdoors for a few hours every day, and gradually increase their time outside over several warm days for about two weeks. Plant in thoroughly warmed soil only after the nighttime temperatures stay above 50 degrees. Keep in mind that eggplants helplessly sulk and usually won’t recover if they catch a chill.
True to their jungle roots, eggplants revel in the steamy heat of summer, so there is no need to worry about the dog days of summer when growing eggplants. They love growing in otherwise oppressive microclimates where other plants faint from heat exhaustion. Consider planting your eggplants against a south-facing brick wall or in large containers on a sunny deck or patio. Heat is the key to strong, healthy fruit.
Eggplants’ enemies, flea beetles and Colorado potato beetles, can devastate a crop in a hurry. While there are various chemical and organic remedies ranging from Sevin dust to wood ashes, the best treatments involve avoiding the pests completely. Strong, healthy plants are less attractive to the pests, one more reason to keep them warm. Other tactics include keeping them covered with spun-bonded row covers and other physical barriers. These barriers can be made from 1- and 2-gallon nursery pots, cutting the bottom from each pot. Settle a pot into the ground around each plant, leaving it there for the entire growing season if possible.
The firm, tender flesh of freshly picked eggplant provides excellent filler for many saucy dishes, as it quickly absorbs flavors and oils in the cooking process. Vegetarians prize eggplant for its body and texture, finding it to be a satisfying meat replacement. Many eggplant recipes recommend salting uncooked slices in order to remove bitterness, but if picked young, most varieties remain bitter-free. Salt if you must, but only if you want the salt. Baked, seasoned, sliced eggplant crisps make delicious additions to lasagna, or irresistible out-of-hand snacks.
More than just productive vegetables, eggplants make an attractive addition to borders and even flowerbeds. While wild eggplants can range from 1 to 8 feet in height, most cultivated eggplants restrain themselves to a more dignified 2- to 3-foot plant. Their striking gray-green velvety leaves and attractive lavender or white flowers easily make a visual statement not soon to be forgotten. Once they set fruit, an entirely new dimension presents itself. Eggplant fruits display a wide spectrum of shapes and colors, making the plants a perfect choice wherever a visual punch is desired.
Eggplant fruits range from pea-sized to 1 1/2-foot-long monsters. Some are round or pear shaped, squat and ruffled like a pumpkin, or long and thin like a finger. One in-edible ornamental variety even has scandalous nipples. And yes, some more simple varieties are even egg-shaped.
While some eggplant varieties are, well, eggplant colored, some also range from purple so dark one can mistake it for true black, to brilliant white, with soft lavender, shocking pink, glowing orange, and even fluorescent green and yellow. Many varieties sport stripes and swirls of two or more colors. So, just imagine the possibilities, and it doesn’t take much effort to pair eggplants with dahlias or ornamental grasses in a bed or border.
Eggplants can be found for every garden and every kitchen. The Ping Tung Eggplant, a Taiwanese variety, produces long, narrow lavender to neon violet fruits. They can reach 1 foot in length, but as always, flesh quality is better when picked young. The Ping Tung Eggplant is a vigorous grower that does well in the Southwest, slowing down only when temperatures reach triple digits.
Northern gardeners can select Morden Midget, a European type eggplant that grows well in pots in short-season areas. Unlike many eggplants, Morden Midget requires only 60 days from transplant to harvest. It does better than most in cool conditions; gardeners report the seeds will sprout reliably without bottom heat. The plants are small and productive, bearing so heavily that they often require stakes.
Gardeners looking for an eggplant that makes a fashion statement should try Listada de Gandia. This Spanish heirloom produces 7-inch-long egg-shaped fruit, striped a striking royal purple and white. Listada requires 90 days from transplant to harvest, so it’s not for every garden. Be sure your microclimate is hot enough, or plant Listada at the base of a warm, south-facing wall.
Eggplants can bring the exotic to any garden. So, if you desire a flavor of Asia, India, Arabia or the Mediterranean, be sure to save a warm corner of your garden for this King of Vegetables. You won’t be sorry you did. But be careful, you might just fall madly in love with them.
Andrew Weidman is a native of Lebanon, Pa, and freelance writer who has been researching and writing about historic vegetables and gardening for several years. He is a member of the Back Yard Fruit Growers and formerly served as a Penn State Master Gardener for Lebanon County. Find him on Google+.