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Eggplant: The ‘mad apples’ of bygone gardens

“Spheroid

Fruit, pleasing

To taste, fattened

By water gushing in all

The gardens, glossy cupped

In its petiole, ah heart

Of a lamb in

A vulture’s claws.”

— Ibn Sara of Santarem, Portuguese poet, circa 1123


I love the way the words of this 12th century poem about eggplant are shaped like the “spheroid fruit,” and how the author vividly describes a purple eggplant as the “heart of a lamb” and the fuzzy calyx that grips the top of an eggplant as “a vulture’s claws.” What’s more, it’s fascinating to me that someone thought enough about eggplants to write a poem about them.

In fact, eggplants (Solanum melongena) have been an important vegetable crop for millennia, although, botanically speaking, eggplants are actually berries. They are native to warm climates in India, Southeast Asia and China, and other Solanum species are native to Africa. Eggplants were domesticated as early as 300 BCE; they found their way to Europe in the late medieval period.

For some time, Europeans had a love-hate relationship with eggplants. Like other members of the nightshade family that also includes tomatoes, eggplants were thought to be poisonous and many authors warned against eating them.

For example, the English botanist John Gerard wrote in “Herball” (1597): “I rather wish Englishmen to content themselves with the meat and sauce of our own country, than with fruit and sauce eaten with such peril: for doubtless these apples have a mischievous quality; the use thereof is utterly to be forsaken ...”

In England during Gerard’s lifetime, eggplants were commonly known as mala insana or “mad apples,” a mispronunciation of the Italian name for eggplant, melanzana. Other writers claimed eating eggplants caused all manner of unpleasant side effects — from pimples to leprosy.

For good or for ill, depending on the writer, eggplants were described as having aphrodisiacal qualities; along with tomatoes, they were also referred to as “love apples.” In 1710, William Salmon wrote enthusiastically of eggplants: “The beauty of the fruit, and the wonderful delight they give to the palate, also their inciting to venery (today known as horniness) are the great motives to the eating of them.”

Even the critical Gerard equivocated: “Therefore it is better to esteem this plant and have him in the garden for your pleasure and the rareness thereof, than for any virtue or good qualities yet known.”

Nowadays, the nutritional benefits and culinary diversity of eggplants are well known; however, in a sense, eggplants are rarer now than they were some 400 years ago. Of course, we can usually find eggplant at the store when we need it, but most Americans are familiar with only the shiny, black-skinned cultivars that make up the vast majority of commercially grown eggplants.

Luckily, gardeners can derive pleasure from growing a much wider variety of eggplants in all sorts of shapes, sizes and colors. A wonderful local source for open-pollinated eggplant seeds is Restoration Seeds (www.restorationseeds.com). Open-pollinated, or OP, seeds can be saved from your harvest and new plants will have the same characteristics as the parent plant. This is not the case when using hybrid, or F1, seeds.

Here are a few of my favorite kinds of eggplants:

Listada de Gandia: A French heirloom from 1850, this eggplant has purple and white stripes and thin skin that doesn’t have to be peeled for the fruits to be eaten.

Petch Siam: A native of Thailand, these 2-inch diameter, green-striped eggplants look like tiny watermelons. They make great container plants and are very productive.

Long Purples: I love the light purple skin of this slender, slicing eggplant. Not only pretty, I think they’re delicious grilled in a vegetable medley and as a topping for pasta.

Casper: A white-skinned variety with snowy white flesh that has a subtle, mushroom flavor. This French heirloom grows well in our region. I like to grow white eggplants because they look stunning against the green foliage and, like my white-flowered ornamentals, they almost glow at twilight.

Turkish Orange: On my list of eggplants to try next, this heirloom plant produces 3-inch round, orangey-red fruits with dark stripes. Said to be particularly resistant to insects, they are abundant producers if trellised for support.

Black Beauty: OK, this heirloom looks like your everyday eggplant, and it tends to produce later in the growing season. Yet, I always grow a few of these plants because they consistently produce high-quality fruits that are just the right slicing size for eggplant Parmesan.

To grow eggplant from seed this season, I sowed indoors in March, using fertile soil in 4-inch peat pots. I provided bottom heat set at 80-85 degrees; I also provided 14 hours of light and tried to keep the soil as evenly moist as possible.

After a hardening-off period, I transplanted my seedlings to the garden in mid-May to early June, adding compost to the planting hole and mulch on top of the soil. I needed to protect my young plants a few times during our cooler spring nights, and recently I’ve blocked late-afternoon sun with umbrellas to help prevent blossom and fruit drop (I’ve had a few casualties anyway).

When the plants were about 6 inches tall, I pinched out the growing tip to promote branching and more eggplants.

I use drip irrigation for all of my edible crops, and I’ve been watering my plants every day lately to keep the soil moist. Now that my eggplants have flowered and are beginning to set fruit, I fertilize them every two weeks with a low-nitrogen, organic fertilizer.

Depending on the type of eggplant, they’ll be ready to harvest in 70 to 85 days from seed germination, which means I’ll be harvesting most of my eggplants during August and September. A ripe eggplant should be glossy and firm with a slight give when pressed with a thumb.

Typically, eggplants are less likely to taste bitter if they are harvested on the small side. The bitterness comes from the seeds, which, surprisingly, contain a tiny amount of nicotine; the tobacco plant is another member of the nightshade family.

Pick the fruit by holding it with one hand while clipping the stem close to the stalk with the other hand. Eggplants should be eaten as soon as possible after they are picked, but they will keep in the refrigerator for up to a week if wrapped in plastic.

When considering only the dark-skinned cultivars, it’s easy to fret that eggplants were misnamed; however, the term was first used in British-occupied India for a small, white-skinned eggplant cultivar that did, in fact, resemble an egg. Ironically, eggplants are now called aubergines in England, which refers to the deep purple skin of the eggplants we are most familiar with today.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, visit her blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/.

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