By: Charlie Nardozzi with Peter Kopcinski
Long and thin or round and fat, eggplants range from egg to melon sized. Their most interesting feature for gardeners, however, is the rainbow of different varieties: dark purple and pink to white -- even orange and green. Eggplants light up your garden with an iridescent glow, then they come indoors to star in hors d'oeuvres, main courses, grilled dishes, and pickled condiments. Eggplants (Solanum melongena) are attractive, tender herbaceous perennials normally grown as annuals. Their purple flowers and large, purple-tinged leaves combine with colorful fruit to make them a stunning addition for a vegetable or flower garden.
An International Traveler
Eggplant truly is an international vegetable. Plant researchers theorize that eggplants were first eaten on the Indian subcontinent, and Chinese records note mild-flavored eggplant hundreds of years before the Christian era. By the fourth century, eggplants had found their way to the Arab world and from there traveled throughout the Mediterranean. Today, eggplant is a major crop in Asia and southern Europe. The variety selection reflects this international history. There are small, round green eggplants from Thailand, round orange eggplants from Turkey and lavender- and white-streaked eggplants from Italy.
The eggplant varieties most American gardeners are familiar with are the classic teardrop or oval-shaped, purple-skinned types. Although the size and heft of these modern varieties, such as 'Black Bell', are great for making eggplant parmesan, they only produce about 8 to 10 eggplants per plant, depending on where you live. For two to three times the yield (although the actual total weight is the same), try the long, thin, Asian types like 'Ping Tung Long'. The small, round varieties such as 'Bambino' are also appealing. These eggplants are great for the grill, in stir-fry dishes, or skewered.
The shapes, colors, and sizes of varieties are different, but when it comes to flavor, they all taste abouthe same, with perhaps one exception: White-skinned and mottled white varieties such as 'Asian Bride' and 'Purple Rain' have a milder flavor and less bitterness than the purple-skinned types. These varieties also have more tender skin that doesn't need peeling before cooking. However, if any eggplants are stressed by cool weather, disease or poor fertility, they'll produce thicker skinned and more bitter tasting fruits than they otherwise would.
Variety selection all comes down to personal preference. 'Rosa Bianca' is an outstanding heirloom. It's a vigorous plant with gray-green leaves and mild-flavored, slightly flattened violet globes. We also like 'Neon'. It's slim and oval, ripens to iridescent pink, and produces well.