Growing Eggplants, the King of Vegetables

Growing eggplants will provide more than just productive vegetables during the heat of the summer; These Aubergines, known as the King of Vegetables, also make an attractive addition to garden borders and flowerbeds.

| March/April 2014

  • The Ping Tung Eggplant is a vigorous grower that does well in the Southwest, slowing down only when temperatures reach triple digits.
    Photo by Seed Savers Exchange
  • 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.
    Photo by Seed Savers Exchange
  • Rosa Bianca Eggplant
    Photo by David Cavagnaro/Seed Savers Exchange

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.

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