EggplantAs commonly used as the eggplant is today, it's hard to imagine that at one time their use was viewed with suspicion (eggplants are in the nightshade family). The first eggplants grown weren't the large purple varieties frequently grown today, but rather small, white varieties with fruits shaped like eggs (thus the name eggplant).

Different cultures grow various types of eggplant. In Asia, where food is stir-fried quickly at high temperatures, long, narrow, quick-cooking varieties are preferred because they hold their shape and texture. Large, round varieties are preferred by Italian cooks. These varieties absorb other flavors and are readily incorporated into sauces. The French select purple varieties that have fine-grained flesh.

Eggplants love warm temperatures and grow best in full sun. Wait until nighttime temperatures are consistently around 55 F before transplanting outdoors in the spring. Water regularly (an inch a week) to avoid bitter tasting fruit. Eggplants are heavy feeders and benefit from regular fertilization throughout the growing season. Fertilize with a starter fertilizer at transplanting and again at fruit set. Large fruited varieties should have their side branches supported to prevent broken branches. After side branches develop, place stakes around the plants and run string between the stakes at 1 1/2 feet and 3 feet levels. Tie the branches to the string for support. Plants grow to a height of 2 to 3 feet.

Eggplants have their best flavor when they are harvested young. Early, repeated harvest also stimulates continuous fruit production. At harvest, the skin should be taut and shiny. Fruit that has lost its shine and has begun to change color is overripe and most likely bitter. Purple varieties take on a bronze appearance when overripe, while white eggplants begin to turn yellow. Press the fruit with your finger. If the skin springs back, the eggplant is ready for picking. Fruit that is not firm has probably been left on the plant too long. You can check fruit maturity by cutting as well. If the seeds are brown, the fruit is over-ripe and probably bitter. Look for light yellow seeds. The stems of eggplants are tough and should be cut with a knife or scissors to avoid broken branches. Some varieties even have spines on the calyx and may require gloves at harvest. Harvest typically begins 55 to 65 days from transplanting.

Some long fruited varieties to choose from include:

  • 'Machiaw' has 9 inch long, slender fruit with deep pink skin color. Flesh is tender. For straightest fruit, stake plants.
  • 'Orient Express' has slender 8 to 10 inch long, glossy, black fruit. This variety will set fruit in cool weather as well as hot.
  • 'Ping Tung' has 18 inch long fruit with dark purple skin.

Some round fruited varieties to choose from include:

  • 'Black Bell' has medium-large, round-oval fruit with glossy black skin.
  • 'Thai Round' has small green fruit about 2 inches in diameter.
  • 'Bharta' has large, round, black fruit with less seed.

Those with unusual color include:

  • 'Harabegan' has shiny green, elongated fruit. Fruit is hard and contains less seed.
  • 'Osterei' has small, white, oval fruit. This variety can be grown easily in containers.
  • 'Neon' has deep pink, mid-size fruit with white, non-bitter flesh.
  • 'Slim Jim' has lavender to purple fruit that begins to color when just the size of a peanut.
  • 'Violette di Firenze' has oblong to round fruit, lavender in color striped with white.
  • 'Asian Bride' has slender , 5 to 6 inch long fruit with white skin streaked with lavender. White flesh cooks quickly.
  • 'Rosa Bianca' has teardrop-shaped fruit with rosy lavender and soft white skin. This heirloom variety has mild flesh with no bitterness.
  • 'Little Fingers' has finger-shaped, purple fruit. Harvest when 3 to 6 inches in length.

This article originally appeared in the May 2, 1997 issue, pp. 58-59.


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