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Definition: eggplant from The Columbia Encyclopedia

name for Solanum melongena, a large-leaved woody perennial shrub (often grown as an annual herb) of the family Solanaceae (nightshade family), and also cultivated for its ovoid fruit. Native to SE Asia, the eggplant is raised in tropical and (as an annual) in warm climates as a garden vegetable and is a staple in parts of the Middle East. The fruit (a berry, like its relative the tomato) varies in size and may be black, purple, white, green, yellow, or striped. Eggplants are classified in the division Magnoliophyta, class Magnoliopsida, order Polemoniales, family Solanaceae.

Summary Article: Eggplant
from Encyclopedia of Cultivated Plants: From Acacia to Zinnia

A member of the Nightshade family, eggplant is related to tomato, pepper, potato, tobacco, petunia, and the poisonous belladonna. Apparently aware of its relationship to toxic plants, Europeans were initially wary of eggplant. The word “eggplant” has an affinity with the Indian vatin-ganah. In Arabic, eggplant is al-badinjan, in Persian badin-gan, in Spanish berenjana, in Catalan alberginia, in French aubergine, in Sanskrit vatingana, in Italian melanzana, and in Greek melitzana. In the Middle Ages, Europeans called eggplant the “mad apple” in the belief that it caused insanity. Australians called eggplant “egg fruit,” perhaps in appreciation of the fact that eggplant is a fruit rather than a vegetable, though at least one vegetable book includes a section on eggplant. In West Africa, people know eggplant as the “garden egg.” The people of the Caribbean know eggplant as “brown jolly.” The English word “eggplant” derives from the fruit's reception in England. In contrast to the current purple varieties, the standard varieties of eggplant in the early modern era yielded white fruit that resembled eggs. Italian botanists, apparently aware of the eggplant's kinship with belladonna, called it an “evil unhealthy thing.” Confusingly, Europeans called eggplant a “love apple,” a phrase they also used to describe the tomato. This language may derive from the belief that both eggplant and tomato were aphrodisiacs. Eggplant was also known as “raging apple.” In the 18th century, Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus named eggplant Solanum melongena. Ninety-three percent water, eggplant has fiber, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, and folic acid. Four ounces of eggplant have 32 calories. Some medical practitioners believe that eggplant may prevent stroke, bleeding, heart disease, and cancer.

Origin and History

Eggplant traces its lineage to the Old World, a curious circumstance given that the other prominent members of the Nightshade family—potato, tomato, pepper, and tobacco—all originated in the Americas. French botanist Alphonse de Candolle was the first to surmise an Old World origin, writing in 1886 that eggplant originated in Asia. In the 20th century, Russian agronomist Nikolai Vavilov sharpened the focus, pointing to India or Myanmar as the homeland of eggplant. Others have identified Southeast Asia as the cradle of the eggplant. One scholar, eschewing the focus on Asia, proposed that eggplant originated in North Africa.

Eggplant must not have been a promising cultigen in its earliest days. One scientist believes that the ancestor of eggplant bore small, bitter fruit. These traits did not deter humans, who selected eggplant for size and the absence of bitterness. The fact that no wild species of eggplant exists suggests that the plant is an old cultigen, though written records of the crop date to only 500 BCE. Even at this date eggplant may have been an ornamental rather than a food. It seems likely that it is not as ancient as corn, potato, sugarcane, wheat, barley, and several other crops. According to one hypothesis, the Chinese first ate eggplant in the sixth century CE. Chinese women used eggplant to polish their teeth. From China, eggplant may have migrated to Japan, where it was one of the five most important vegetables. Another hypothesis holds that the people of India were the first to eat eggplant. Indians may have gathered wild eggplant around the time of Christ. Having originated in India, according to this hypothesis, eggplant migrated to China and then to Arabia in the fourth century CE. The Arabs featured eggplant in their cuisine. One recipe, known as Iman fainted, paired eggplant and olive oil and concerned an Iman who married the daughter of a wealthy olive oil merchant. She presented her husband with a dowry of 12 jars of olive oil. For the first 12 days of their marriage, she prepared a dish of eggplant and olive oil. On the 13th evening, she did not serve eggplant. The surprised husband inquired about this circumstance. When his wife told him that she had no more olive oil he fainted.

The Greeks and Romans may not have known about eggplant. One hypothesis holds that eggplant reached Europe in the Middle Ages, though another holds that only in the 17th century did eggplant arrive in Europe, having come from North Africa. The second hypothesis cannot be true, because in the 16th century English herbalist John Gerard noted that the people of Spain and Africa ate eggplant. Gerard counseled the reader not to eat eggplant. He was suspicious of its “mischievous quality.” Another author warned that eggplant caused depression, leprosy, cancer, headache, and bad breath, turned one's skin black or yellow, and harmed the liver and spleen. In contrast to this negativism, 17th-century English herbalist John Parkinson believed that eggplant was safe. About the 17th century, Europeans introduced eggplant into the American colonies. Americans initially disliked the flavor of eggplant and instead grew it as an ornamental. In the 18th century, Thomas Jefferson, who would later serve as the third president, grew eggplant in his garden. In the Americas, eggplant is grown where the climate is warm. The American South and the Caribbean are regions of cultivation. Although a minor crop, eggplant is today grown in California, Florida, Georgia, New York, and North Carolina.

Attributes and Cultivation

A perennial crop in the tropics, eggplant is an annual in the temperate zone because frost kills it. In temperate locales the gardener may plant seeds, which germinate in 1 to 2 weeks at 70°F to 75°F, 8 to 10 weeks before transplantation in the garden, which should occur 1 to 2 weeks after the last frost. Eggplant may be transplanted in the field 2 weeks after transplanting tomato. One gardener believes that eggplant grows best between 75°F and 80°F. Another favors a temperature between 80°F and 90°F. Among the most heat- and drought-tolerant plants, eggplant does not flourish below 60°F. Temperatures below 50°F may injure flowers. When transplanted in the field, seedlings should be spaced two feet apart. The gardener may add well-rotted manure to the soil at the time of transplantation. One month later a second dressing, fish emulsion or a complete fertilizer, may be added to the soil. Thereafter the gardener may fertilize eggplant every 3 or 4 weeks. The gardener may cover the soil with black plastic to absorb heat and retain moisture. Eggplant should not be planted in soil where tomato, pepper, or potato has been grown. Eggplant needs warm, fertile, well-drained sandy loam. The soil should be slightly acidic, with a pH between 5.5 and 6.5. Eggplant matures roughly 50 to 70 days after transplantation. It is ready to harvest when the fruit's skin is shiny. If one can press the skin with a fingernail and the indentation remains, eggplant is ready to pick. When overripe, the skin becomes dull and brown. The fruit is bitter when overripe. A plant produces four to six fruit but yields more if harvested frequently. The fruit may be as large as a watermelon or as small as a marble. Most varieties are purple, though others may be white, yellow, green, red, or lavender. Eggplant does not store well and should be eaten within a few days of harvest. Because the fruit should not be stored below 45°F, it may not be suitable for refrigeration.


Little Spooky has white fruit that must resemble a ghost. The Japanese on Hokkaido Island once grew Little Spooky to banish evil spirits and to ensure a bountiful harvest. Three-foot-tall plants yield fruit 7 inches long and 3 inches wide. The New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station released Applegreen in 1964. The fruit is green like the Granny Smith apple, a resemblance that must give the variety its name. Applegreen matures early enough for cultivation in the northern United States. Unusual in tolerating light frost, Thai Green has lime green fruit that elongates to 12 inches. The variety matures in 80 days. Dating to 1902, Black Beauty is among the most popular cultivars. Fruit should be picked when small to ensure the best flavor. As a rough guide, Black Beauty is ready to harvest 74 days after transplantation. Plants grow to three feet. Louisiana Long Green is known as Green Banana because the fruit resembles an unripe banana. Plants reach three feet in height and bear fruit 8 inches long. Plants should be staked to keep fruit off the ground. Rosa Bianca, a variety popular in Italy, bears white fruit with streaks of lavender or purple. The variety matures in 80 days. Casper matures in 70 days and is suitable for a short growing season. Consumers have likened the flavor of Casper to mushroom. Southern Exposure Seed Exchange discovered Turkish Italian Orange, a Turkish variety, in Italy, introducing it into the United States in 1990. Plants reach four feet in height and yield abundantly. Fruit is most flavorful when picked green. When the skin turns red orange, the fruit is overripe.

Seed Savers Exchange introduced Diamond, a Ukrainian variety, into the United States in 1993. Diamond bears purple fruit that matures in 70 to 80 days. Two-foot plants bear nine-inch fruit. Maturing in 72 days, White Egg is named for the color of its unripe skin. When ripe the skin turns yellow. The United Kingdom has grown White Egg since the 16th century.

Further Reading
  • Coulter, Lynn. Gardening with Heirloom Seeds: Tried-and-True Flowers, Fruits, and Vegetables for a New Generation. University of North Carolina Press Chapel Hill, 2006.
  • Heiser, Charles B. Jr. The Fascinating World of the Nightshades: Tobacco, Mandrake, Potato, Tomato, Pepper, Eggplant, Etc. Dover New York, 1987.
  • Kehayan, Nina. Essentially Eggplant. Fisher Books Tucson AZ, 1996.
  • London, Sheryl. Eggplant and Squash: A Versatile Feast. Atheneum New York, 1976.
  • McNamee, Gregory. Movable Feasts: The History, Science, and Lore of Food. Praeger Westport CT, 2007.
  • Parsons, Russ. How to Pick a Peach: The Search for Flavor from Farm to Table. Houghton Mifflin Boston, 2007.
  • Singh, P. K.; S. K. Dasgupta; S. K. Tripathi, eds. Hybrid Vegetable Development. Food Products Press Binghamton NY, 2004.
  • Christopher Cumo
    Copyright 2013 by Christopher Cumo

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