Today, eggplants are appreciated for both their 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. Eggplants come 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.
History of Eggplants
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.
Eggplant was introduced to the United States in the early 1800s 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. Eggplants remained an ornamental curiosity until the late 1800s and early 1900s 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. 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 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 and each category offers a choice of eggplants in varying colors, sizes, and days to harvest:
- Elongated or cylindrical
- Pea eggplants
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.
AAS Winning Eggplants
Fairy Tale (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.
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.
Gretel (55 days) has clusters of pure white, elongated teardrop-shaped fruit that are the earliest white eggplant on the market and offers gardeners a high yield of 3-4 inch fruit with tender skin, few seeds, and the sweetest flavor.
Patio Baby (45 days) is a 2014 winner that is very early and highly productive with a compact habit making it a great choice for containers. Deep purple, egg-shaped fruits are harvested at just 2-3 inches.
How to Grow Eggplants
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 mail-order 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 Eggplants from Seed
In most regions of the U.S., start eggplant seeds indoors about 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost date. Direct seeding 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. Cover seeds with ¼ inch of seed-starting mix.
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 of 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. After 10-14 days of hardening plant in the garden.
Starting from Transplants
Local garden centers offer eggplant seedlings but the 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.
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 a safe, biological insecticides based on Spinosad, a natural soil bacteria.
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.
“This post is provided as an education/inspirational service of All-America Selections. Please credit and link to All-America Selections when using all or parts of this article.”