Gardens - Fruit & Vegetable Gardening

Unbeatable eggplant

By
Judith Adam
Photography by
Yvonne Duivenvoorden

Choose one or more of these violet-hued veggies that are as delectable as they are ornamental


The plots of standard, open-pollinated vegetables in my grandparents' garden were, year to year, as predictable as sunrise and sunset. Tradition has its place in gardening, but there comes a time when we must be adventurous and attempt something new. (I well remember the daring sense of exoticism when my grandfather planted a hybrid dwarf watermelon, not from saved seed, but specially ordered from the Burpee catalogue.) Each year I grow at least one untried plant, which is how I came to have eggplants in my garden. Among the edibles and ornamentals, the striking colours and shapes of new eggplant cultivars have much to offer in both the garden and kitchen.

Deep purple, pink, lavender and white eggplants (Solanum melongena) are relatively recent introductions to northern vegetable gardens, but their ancestors have been growing about the back hills of Africa, India and China for centuries. And despite the mythology of their poisonous effects (see “A Shady Past”, right), eggplants, particularly their skins, contain substantial amounts of antioxidant phenolic compounds, cancer-fighting elements that gobble up free-radical scavengers in the bloodstream. Thus these once feared fruits actually promote good health.

Of course gardeners need to feed their souls as well as their bodies, and the voluptuous beauty of eggplants is reason enough to include them in planting plans. Their shapes range from small grape-sized fruits to classic large globes, in colours from the familiar deep purple through mauve, pink, lime, white and striped. Despite their size, eggplants are classified as berry fruits; each one grows with a spiny cap called a calyx. All have both male and female characteristics and are self-pollinating. As well, they all have seeds that swell and darken as the fruits grow large and mature. To avoid seedy fruit, harvest them when they're smaller and slightly immature.

eggplant-inset1.jpgA shady past
American president Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), an innovative horticulturist, is credited with introducing the edible eggplant to North America, and it continues to be grown in his restored garden at Monticello, Virginia.

These striking yet misunderstood vegetables are cousins to tomatoes and potatoes (all members of the Solanaceae family), and are related to poisonous jimson weed (Datura stramonium) and belladonna (Atropa bella-donna), a.k.a. deadly nightshade. Solanum is derived from the Latin word solamen, meaning “quieting,” referring to the soporific qualities of some nightshade plants. Consequently, eggplant species were historically grown as ornamental garden plants, enjoyed for their vibrant violet flowers followed by deeply tinted fruits, but kept off the menu. Early eggplants were called mala insana, meaning “mad apple,” in the belief they would cause insanity, fever and epilepsy.

Inset image: 'Italian pink bicolor' by Bonnie Sommerfeldt

 

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