All About Eggplant Plants

Learn about the history of different eggplant varieties from dishes prepared in ancient times to growing tips for today.

| Summer 2012

Eggplants are not only fun to grow, they are also among the showiest and ornamental of all the kitchen-garden vegetables. Furthermore, they like it hot, so they don’t shut down like tomatoes when the summer heat waves roll in.

And what a choice we have when it comes to shapes, colors, and range of flavors. There is just about an eggplant for every culinary situation, not to mention the decorative possibilities when growing them in tubs or pots on the terrace.

Through History

The name eggplant in English was derived from one such ornamental introduced to England in the 1500s: It sported little white fruits shaped like chicken eggs. The fruits were fairly bitter so they never made it into traditional English cookery.

Aside from the egg-shaped ornamentals, the diversity we see in eggplants is due to the vast size of this family of nightshades, for there are literally hundreds of varieties spread across a complex web of species and sub-species. The genetic origin of eggplants, at least those belonging to Solanum melongena (our common culinary eggplants), is presumed to be India or Southeast Asia, hence the immense biodiversity of eggplants in those parts of the world. Called brinjal in Hindi, eggplants are considered basic to Indian cooking and a key component of the vegetarian cuisine of Keralia, where eggplants go into everything from chutneys to stir-fries, even pickles and sweets.

While it may be an over-simplification, let it be said that eggplants fall into two broad categories: those that ripen yellow and those that ripen red or orange. Our common culinary eggplants turn yellow when they are ripe. At this stage they become hard and bitter, so just like zucchini (which also turns yellow when ripe) we are really eating the fruits when young and tender. Some varieties are even sweet at that stage of maturity, one reason they combine so well with tomato sauce and why nutmeg is sometimes used to enhance the flavor.

The group of eggplants that ripen red or orange generally belong to the species Solanum aethiopicum, an African cousin of the common eggplant. This is a large tribe of plants with many sub-groups such as Gilo and Kumba, both of which are represented in the Baker Creek seed catalog. The fruit of these eggplants turns scarlet red or orange, Turkish Orange and China Red being two good examples. These red-fruited varieties can be intensely bitter when fully ripe, a characteristic that endears them to traditional cooks in Africa and Southeast Asia, but is an acquired taste for most westerners. What many gardeners do not know is that eggplants like Turkish Orange are generally harvested for culinary purposes when green or unripe. At that stage they are relatively sweet and palatable and are ideal for pickles.

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