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The eggplant has been celebrated as an aphrodisiac and feared as the cause of insanity. Today it is appreciated for both its inspiring beauty and delightful flavor. An essential ingredient in cuisines around the world, it is the essence of Greek moussaka, Middle Eastern baba ganoush, Italian eggplant parmigiana, and French ratatouille. The emergence of Asian cuisine has introduced a whole new range of eggplants flavoring delicious stir-fries and curries. Gardens and markets are filled with eggplants in a variety of sizes from small and pea-like, to egg shaped, to long and slender. Their fruits offer a stunning color palette from the traditional royal purple to shades of rose, violet, green, yellow and white, often enhanced with lovely stripes in a contrasting color.
Eggplant is believed to have originated in India and was cultivated in China as early as 500 B.C. Eaten in the Middle East and Asia for centuries, it was taken to Africa by the Arabs and Persians during the Middle Ages, eventually finding its way to Italy in the 14th century. Even though eggplants were consumed without hesitation in other parts of the world, it was not eaten by all Europeans. In fact it was called mala insana—the mad apple or bad egg. The fruit was considered dangerous because it belonged to the nightshade family which contains many poisonous plants including jimson weed, angel’s trumpet, belladonna and deadly nightshade.
Louis XIV during his reign in the 1600’s was among the first in Europe to introduce eggplant to the table. Unfortunately, the fruit was not well received and was said to “be as large as pears, but with bad qualities.” It was also thought that eating eggplant caused fever, epilepsy and even insanity. For more than a century eggplants were grown for their ornamental value by the Europeans who prized the plant’s beautiful purple, star-shaped flowers and colorful fruits but found its bitter flavor unappealing.
Eggplant was introduced to the United States in the early 1800’s by our third president, Thomas Jefferson. An avid gardener, Jefferson was interested in discovering new plants and grew many flowers and vegetables from around the world in his extensive gardens at Monticello. Again because of its botanical connection to other poisonous plants, eggplant was slow to gain acceptance as an edible vegetable. Plants remained an ornamental curiosity until the late 1800’s and early 1900’s when Chinese and Italian immigrants arrived in America. Both of these cultures had a long and rich tradition of using eggplants in their cuisine and helped to spur culinary approval of the eggplant in North America.
The Latin name for eggplant is Solanum melongena, designated by the Swedish botanist, Carolus Linnaeus. There is debate over the species name which some believe was a reference to the Latin mala insana or the Italian name “melanzana.” Still others say the name was derived from an Arabic term for a particular type of eggplant.
John Gerard, the noted herbalist, described eggplants growing during the 16th century as having “the bignesse of a Swans egge, and sometimes much greater, of a white colour, sometimes yellow and often browne.” It was these early varieties that gave them their English name of eggplant.
Eggplant is known around the world by a variety of common names. In its native India eggplant is known as brinjal. In Britain, France and other parts of Europe, it is called aubergine. Italians call it melanzana while the Greeks know it as melitzana. Australians refer to eggfruit and in Africa the eggplant is called a garden egg. These many names reflect the rich diversity of eggplant varieties available today.
Classification and Varieties
Eggplants are frost-tender, herbaceous perennials that are usually grown as annuals. The branched plants reach 2-4 feet tall and are covered with hairy leaves, sometimes having tiny spines. The attractive, star-shaped flowers are usually purple, sometimes white, and produce edible fruit that may be black, purple, green, white, yellow, orange or red, sometimes striped or shaded. The flesh is a creamy white and speckled with tiny brown seeds. Harvest dates vary from 45 to 90 days after transplanting seedlings into the garden.
Eggplants are generally classified by the shape of their fruit. There are five basic groups—globe, elongated or cylindrical, egg-shaped, specialty and pea eggplants. Each category offers a choice of eggplants in varying colors, sizes and days to harvest. In the variety descriptions the number of days from transplanting to harvest is shown in parentheses.
The most common type in North America is the Western or oval eggplant that has large, deep purple, pear-shaped fruits. These types are most commonly used for stuffing, baking, sautéing and grilling. Unfortunately, they have the undeserved reputation for having tough skin and bitter flavor, generally not a problem when harvested fresh from your own garden.
Black Beauty (80 days) is the classic eggplant with deep purple skin and white flesh. The large 8-10 inch fruits can weigh up to a pound. Dusky hybrid (63 days) is an improved variety that produces smaller, 5-7 inch, purple-black fruits on productive plants that have disease resistance to tobacco mosaic virus (TMV).
Japanese varieties are typically small fruited with a variety of shapes, and thin skinned in beautiful, deep purple or light violet colors, sometimes blended with white or green. The skin is tender so fruits don’t need to be peeled. These varieties are ideal for stir-frying, grilling, sautéing and pickling.
Ichiban hybrid (58 days) has long 10-inch fruits that are very deep purple, almost black in color. In addition to delicious flavor, this variety is slow to set seed and very productive. Another early variety is Millionaire hybrid (60 days) which produces 8-12 inch long fruits that are glossy black and nearly seedless. Orient Charm hybrid (65 days) has fruits that are pale lavender, fluorescent pink or pastel pink streaked with white. Machiaw hybrid (65 days) looks like a long, thin cucumber with a light purple skin. Asian Bride (70 days) has long, thin fruits with a pale white outer skin streaked with lavender surrounding a mild flavored flesh with a very creamy texture.
Recently, two varieties have won the prestigious All-America Selections Award, the first eggplants to win in almost seventy years. Both have excellent flavor and texture, are highly productive over a long harvest period and widely adapted throughout North America. Fairy Tale hybrid (51 days) won in 2005 for its elegant white fruits striped in violet and purple shades. Fruits can be picked when small, only 1-2 ounces for a unique miniature eggplant, or left on the plant to double in size without losing any flavor or tenderness. Compact plants make them ideal for growing in containers. The new Hansel hybrid (55 days) is a 2008 award winner that produces clusters of glossy, dark purple fruits borne over a long season on plants that out yield traditional varieties. Fruits can be harvested when only 2-3 inches in length or left to grow to a full 6-10 inches long.
Round, egg-shaped eggplants come in a variety of colors. Easter Egg (52 days) is a fast maturing variety with highly ornamental, egg-shaped white fruits. While it is commonly sold as a novelty plant, the fruits are edible. The green and white striped Kermit hybrid (60 days) is about the size of a golf ball and popular in Thai cooking. Turkish Italian Orange (75 days) bears brilliant orange, egg-shaped fruits that are typically eaten when young and green.
There are many specialty and heirloom eggplants available. Bambino hybrid (45 days) is a true baby vegetable with miniature 1-1½ inch eggplants produced on dwarf, 12-inch plants. This is an excellent ornamental choice for edging and containers. Calliope hybrid (64 days) is an Indian-type eggplant with beautiful oval fruits with a rich purple skin streaked with white. Fruits can be harvested when only 2 inches for baby eggplants or allowed to reach 4 inches. Casper(70 days) is an elongated white eggplant with 6-inch fruits on compact plants. Rosa Bianca (88 days) is the classic Italian heirloom variety prized for the extremely creamy interior flesh and beautiful skin in shades of rose, lavender and white.
Small, round-fruited types called pea eggplants grow in clusters that resemble bunches of grapes. About the size of a marble, the fruits are typically picked when a light green and still crisp. They are not widely available in North America because their bitter flavor doesn’t always appeal to Western tastes. Most popular in Southeast Asia, India and China, they are used fresh to add unique zest to spicy curries and commonly pickled.
How to Grow
Eggplants can be started from seed or purchased as plants. You will find a number of seed varieties available through retail seed displays, seed catalogs and from internet seed sources. Like its cousins, the tomato and pepper, eggplant needs very warm temperatures to grow properly. The beauty and flavor of the eggplant will be a worthwhile reward for your efforts.
Starting from Seed
In most regions of the U.S., start eggplant seeds indoors about 6 to 8 weeks before the date you will be transplanting the seedlings outdoors. Direct seeding in the garden is not recommended unless you live in an area where temperatures stay above freezing year round. Seedlings are sensitive to transplant shock so it’s best to start eggplant seeds in individual 2-4 inch diameter containers instead of trays or flats. Thoroughly moisten sterile, seed-starting mix then fill containers to within ½ inch of the top. Put 2-3 seeds in each small pot and cover with ¼ inch of seed-starting mix.
Eggplants love warm temperatures. A room temperature of at least 72ºF is ideal for starting seeds. Seeds will germinate and begin to grow about 7-10 days later. Bottom heat encourages faster germination and growth. If seeds are slow to germinate, conditions may be too cool. It can take up to three weeks for seeds to germinate when the soil temperature is around 65ºF. and seeds won’t germinate at all if the soil temperature is below 65ºF. After seedlings appear, move the container to a bright, sunny window or place under plant lights. When seedlings have a couple sets of leaves, thin to the strongest plant by pinching or cutting excess seedlings at the soil line.
Eggplants can be transplanted into the garden when the air temperatures are usually above 70ºF during the day and are usually above 45ºF at night. The soil temperature should be at least 60ºF. To warm the soil, cover the bed with a sheet of plastic mulch after preparing the soil for planting. The plastic can be left on throughout the growing season to prevent weeds and retain moisture.
Before transplanting the tender seedlings into the garden they need to be hardened-off, allowing them to adjust to the outdoor conditions. Place seedlings outdoors in a shaded or protected location for short periods of time, about 4 hours per day to start. Each day, leave plants outdoors for a couple hours longer and gradually move into brighter light conditions. Check your containers regularly to make sure the soil is moist and water if necessary. After 10-14 days plant in the garden.
Starting from Transplants
In addition to selling seed in packets, many catalog and internet seed companies also offer their varieties as live plants shipped to your home. Local garden centers offer eggplant seedlings but your variety selection may be more limited. Purchase only healthy, compact plants with green leaves. Avoid plants that show signs of insects, disease or yellowing which may indicate a problem with the roots or nutrition. Plants that are stressed in the container may take more time to become established in the garden, develop poorly and have reduced yields.
Some plants are sold in “plantable” containers that are put directly in the soil along with the plant to help minimize root damage and transplant shock. The roots are able to grow through the pot which will break down over the growing season. To remove plants from a plastic pot, push up on the bottom of the container; don’t pull plants by the stem. Gently loosen the soil around the roots and place in the ground so that the plant is at the same level as in the pot.
Growing in Containers
Growing eggplants in containers adds color and ornamental beauty to decks and patios, as well as a harvest of nourishing vegetables. It’s a great way to turn any surface into a productive vegetable garden. Containers also provide a good solution if you are short on garden space or simply want to enjoy the convenience. Dwarf eggplant varieties grow well in an 8-inch diameter pot or even a deep window box. Larger varieties need a 12-inch diameter pot or 5-gallon container so roots have room to develop. Make sure the container has drainage for excess water. Then fill with a soilless mix designed for container gardening. For easy maintenance, choose a mix that contains a slow-release fertilizer for healthy plant growth. After transplanting check the soil regularly and water as needed, especially during the heat of summer and when eggplants begin to form on the plant.
Soil—Eggplants prefer a rich, fertile soil with plenty of organic matter. Add well-rotted compost or manure before planting. If needed, work in a balanced, time-released fertilizer when preparing the soil.
Sunlight—Plant eggplants in full sun where they will receive at least 6-8 hours of direct sunlight each day.
Spacing—The mature size of the plant determines the correct spacing. Allow 18-24 inches between standard-sized eggplants. Smaller varieties can be planted closer together with 12-18 inch spacing between plants.
Watering—In addition to warm temperatures, eggplants need regular watering, about 1 inch of water per week, to keep plants productive. A 1-2 inch layer of organic mulch such as well-rotted compost or manure helps retain moisture, improve the soil and provide weed control.
Plant Care—Eggplants may require a little extra care in your garden. If nights become cool after planting outdoors, protect plants with a cover such as hot caps or fabric row cover in the evening and remove them during the daytime until the temperatures have warmed up again. Eggplants that produce large fruits can bend or break and are best staked for support. The long, slender varieties of eggplants also produce straighter fruits when staked. A small, wire tomato cage can also be used.
Insect pests—If you see holes in the leaves of your eggplant, suspect beetles such as the brightly striped, yellow and black Colorado potato beetle or the smaller, flea beetle. Flea beetles and Colorado potato beetles are eggplants most common insect pests. A fabric row cover applied at transplanting will usually exclude these pests. Both insects can be controlled with the new, safe, biological insecticides based on Spinosad, a natural soil bacteria. Spinosad is relatively non-toxic to many beneficial insects such as ladybugs and predatory mites.
Possible Insect and Disease Problems
Aphids often gather on the underside of leaves, on stems and young buds. They can be dislodged from the plant by washing them off with a strong stream of water, or spraying them with insecticidal soap according to the label directions. Make sure you reach the underside of the leaves. Since aphids can be a recurring problem check leaves regularly for signs of infestation.
Mites are another common problem that often isn’t noticed until the damage has been done. Mites are very small and thrive under hot, dry conditions. Unless you look with a magnifying glass, you may not even see the mites. They damage plants by sucking on plant juices causing the leaves to discolor and yellow. Oftentimes, a fine webbing on the underside of the leaves is visible. Mites can be controlled by washing them off with water every day for about a week, or use insecticidal soap applied to the tops and undersides of leaves.
Another way to control insect pests is to encourage ladybugs, lacewings and other beneficial insects in your garden. These “good bugs” are natural predators of aphids, mites and many other damaging insects. Beneficial insects are sold in many garden centers and online stores.
Verticillium wilt is a disease that affects eggplants, as well as tomatoes, peppers and potatoes. The disease is caused by a soil-borne fungus that causes plants to wilt, turn yellow and eventually die. Interior sections of the stem will be brown and discolored. Prevent verticillium wilt by rotating eggplant, tomato, pepper and potato plants to different areas of the garden every year so you are not planting these crops in the same soil.
Harvesting and Storing Eggplants
Be sure to follow harvest guidelines for the eggplant variety you are growing. In general, large-fruited eggplants are ready to harvest 75-95 days from transplanting, while the small-fruited varieties and many of the newer hybrids are ready to harvest within 50 to 60 days of planting outdoors. Fruits should feel firm and have a glossy colored skin. Press lightly on the skin of the eggplant with your finger. If the pressed spot springs back it is ripe; if the imprint remains the fruit is overripe and will tend to be seedy and somewhat bitter.
Harvest fruits regularly to keep plants producing. Use a sharp knife or pruning shears to cut the eggplants from the plant. Don’t try to remove the fruit by twisting or pulling as this can damage or break the entire plant. If you end up with extra eggplants, share them with friends and neighbors, the local food bank, or freeze for later use. In climates where the plants will die from frost, remove any new blossoms beginning about 4 weeks before the first fall frost. This will promote ripening of the existing fruits.
Eggplant fruits are best used fresh but will keep for about a week when loosely wrapped in a perforated plastic bag and stored in your refrigerator’s vegetable crisper or in a cool pantry. To preserve eggplant for later use, blanch or steam slices or cubes and store in the freezer for up to 6-8 months.
Cooking With Eggplants
Eggplant is a versatile vegetable that can be prepared in a variety of ways. It is excellent grilled, stuffed, roasted, sautéed, puréed or served in soups or stews. It can also be used to make curries, stir-fries and kabobs. Eggplant is not usually eaten raw as it contains chemicals that can cause digestive upset.
Naturally low in calories, fat and sodium, eggplant is also high in fiber and an excellent source of potassium, as well as folic acid, copper, vitamin B6, vitamin A, and magnesium. If you want to keep calories and fat low, avoid cooking eggplant in oil. Instead use a broth, wine, or vegetable juice for flavoring.
Since eggplant is more than 90% water, the larger fruits also tend to release water when cooked. This excess moisture can be reduced by salting the slices or cubes of eggplant and allowing them to “weep” for 1-2 hours. Then drain, rinse thoroughly to prevent excessive saltiness, and pat dry before using.
The flesh discolors quickly after being cut so it should be used right away. If needed, cut slices can be lightly sprinkled with lemon juice to help prevent browning. Also, slice eggplant with a stainless steel knife to avoid blackening. Carbon steel knives will cause discoloration, as does cooking eggplant in an aluminum pan.
Some cooks recommend soaking large eggplants in water for 15 minutes before using to reduce bitterness. Others recommend peeling the skin which tends to contribute most of the bitter flavor. Newer varieties have been developed for excellent flavor without the bitterness. And all varieties taste better when harvested on time, when the flesh is still springy when pressed, before becoming overripe.
If you’re deep-frying or pan-frying eggplant for the first time be aware that it absorbs oil like a sponge. Avoid putting eggplant slices directly into oil. Prior to frying, coat eggplant with bread crumbs or a flour and egg mix.
If you can’t remember the last time you ate eggplant, this is the season for something new. As a gardener, be adventurous. Grow a new variety in your garden. As a chef, be creative. Try a new recipe for your table. Eggplants offer endless possibilities to try something different this year and in years to come.
Terms and conditions, READ THIS PLEASE: Orders over $14 from this ad will be shipped with tracking, Otherwise: Seeds will be shipped economy/standard or first class 2-10 day shipping (NO TRACKING and no planting instructions to keep seed costs to the buyer low), in a ziplock baggie. Our goal is to save you money on quality seeds. We are responsible sellers, and we make sure our buyers are well taken care of. Shipped within 2 business days after payment. We are a seller that caters to experienced gardeners, or those that are capable of looking up instructions independently (germination and plant care information is readily available online, but if you can’t find germinating and care instructions, please feel free to message us). We do not include growing instructions. Multiple orders of a single item will be combined into 1 ziplock. We are not responsible for buyer germination success, seeds have been tested. Seed count is approximate, and packaged by weight. Seeds vary in size, weight is exact, and based upon empirical count, quantity is estimated. Liability of seller is limited to the cost of the item(s).