By Audrey Stallsmith
Climb like a cucumber, fall like an aubergine.
Last year, I attempted to cultivate Easter Egg (Solanum ovigerum) plants. Their white fruits charmingly resembled hen’s eggs--at least in the catalog photos!.
By midsummer, the foliage had become so riddled by flea beetles that I cut it back drastically. I was growing the plants for their appearance, after all, so the raggedy look wasn’t acceptable! Unfortunately, they never recovered from their rude pruning, and produced no fruits at all.
The eggplant more commonly grown as a vegetable is Solanum melongena, a native of Asia. It reportedly can be attractive--if not afflicted by beetles--sometimes reaching 3 feet in height with purple-tinged leaves and 1 1/2 inch violet flowers. Although the type most often known and grown these days is the dark purple variety, the fruits come in other colors, such as white, green, yellow, or even red.
Gardeners in ancient times had their suspicions about eggplant, probably because it belongs to the often toxic nightshade family. So it sometimes was called mad apple.
“In Egypt and Barbarie,” John Gerard wrote in his 1597 Herball, “they use to eate the fruite of Malainsana boiled or rosted under ashes with oile, vinegar, and pepper, as people use to eate Mushroms. But I rather wishe Englishmen to content themselves with the meate and sauce of our own country, than with fruite and sauce eaten with such perill: for doubtlesse these apples have a mischeevous quality; the use thereof is utterly to be forsaken. . .Therefore it is better to esteeme this plant and have him in the garden for your pleasure and the rarenesse thereof, then for any virtue or good qualities yet knowne.”
Apparently his fellow Englishmen didn’t take Gerard’s advice on the matter, for the eggplant now is known as aubergine in Britain. Perhaps its reputation as a love apple (aphrodisiac) allowed it to prevail despite its originally bitter taste. The plant likes heat, though, and is difficult to grow in countries where there isn’t much of that.
I don’t recall ever eating eggplant, so I can’t comment on its flavor, though modern cultivars reportedly are less bitter than the original ones. Some people still find the fruits astringent when raw, tasty when cooked. Others think eggplant bland all the time, and say it takes on the flavor of any sauce in which it is cooked.
On the positive side, the fruit is diuretic (helps expels fluid) and high in antioxidants, in addition to lowering cholesterol and blood pressure. In The Green Pharmacy, James Duke suggests applying mashed eggplant to sunburns too.
However, it can cause extreme allergic reactions in a small percentage of the population. So, if you are sensitive to other members of the nightshade family, such as tomatoes, peppers, etc., you probably should avoid this one too. Keep in mind that eggplant foliage is toxic and shouldn't be consumed.
In Japan, eggplant once was considered the third luckiest thing to dream of—after Mt. Fuji and the falcon. I’ve always been fascinated by unusual solanums, perhaps in hopes of finding another as useful as the tomato. Maybe I never bothered growing this one simply because it isn't uncommon anymore!
The Solanum melongena image is from the 1690 Hortus Indicus Malabaricus by Hendrik van Rheede, courtesy of plantillustrations.org.