Thursday, January 16, 2014

Awesome Aubergines

What the heck is an aubergine?  Or perhaps you prefer the name brinjal, garden egg or guinea squash?  These all refer to the versatile, ornamental and edible eggplant (Solanum melongena and other related species).  As a vegan, I eat a lot of eggplant but in general, it has been an acquired taste for Americans with only an average of one pound per person consumed annually.  The bulk of production and consumption for eggplants is in Middle East and Asia with frequent use also in both Greek and Italian cuisine.  The top five countries for eggplant production in order of volume are China, India, Egypt, Iran and Turkey respectively.  Eggplants have become more popular over the past 50 years and were thought to have been introduced to the United States by Thomas Jefferson.  There are literally hundreds of varieties offered collectively from seed catalogs.  Few would argue the ornamental value of this nightshade family member which features a wide range of fruit forms and colors.  In 2003, RBG selected, grew and displayed over 100 varieties of eggplants (Solanum sp.) at the Horticulture Center (some examples directly below) which included the very ornamental variety 'Fairy Tale' seen above.  The range of coloration and fruit form was amazing!!!  Some eggplants were the size of a grape, some were very long and slender and some were enormous.  More on aubergines below!

It was another productive day at the gardens with some light snow coming down here and there.  Pat, Terry and Larry were out in the gardens bringing in more lights and features from the Holiday Lights Show (HLS).  We had Dr. Gredler painting more chairs and Jim and Vern worked on mounting a new sign for our Fleuroselect Collection this year.  We are one of only eight gardens in North America with a display garden for Fleuroselect ( which is the international organization for promoting ornamental plants and is based in Europe.  Gary and Del worked on priming more carpentry project elements and we saw Gary, Maury and Ron W. who were involved with various projects and discussions.  Later we saw Big John, Kay, Cindy and Janice.  I'm bouncing between projects and keeping spring collections, presentations and events on my radar.

The flowers of eggplants (1" in diameter roughly) can be quite beautiful as seen in the two photos above.  Eggplants should be picked often and not left too long on the stem as older fruits become very bitter and pithy.  Five or six rounds of picking are not unusual and most fruits will last at least 14 days in the fridge.  While the leaves and flowers are slightly toxic (like many members of the Solanaceae family), both the skin and seeds of eggplant are edible.  A cup of eggplant only has 20 calories and also contains a good source of fiber as well as small amounts of potassium, vitamin C, iron, protein, vitamin B-6 and magnesium.  Eggplant is also low in fat and cholesterol.  In the kitchen, eggplant absorbs surrounding spices, oils and flavors well and has a wide range of uses.  The fresh fruits, while edible, can be slightly bitter (more bitter with age). However, eggplant becomes tender and flavorful when cooked and develops a rich, complex flavor.  As seen directly below, the foliage can be interesting (and ornamental) as well and early summer foliage may carry a maroon tint too.  Eggplants lend themselves to the sunny vegetable garden, border and container.  There are compact varieties that may have merit in those situations as well.  Below are just a few examples of this easy to grow, ornamental edible for consideration.  

early summer eggplant (Solanum melongena) foliage (unknown variety)
'Pot Black' compact eggplant (Solanum melongena)
'Black Beauty' eggplant (Solanum melongena)
'Hansel' eggplant (Solanum melongena) - All-America Selections (AAS) winner
'Neon' eggplant (Solanum melongena)
'Gretel' eggplant (Solanum melongena) - All-America Selections (AAS) winner
'Pinstripe' eggplant (Solanum melongena)
'Rosa Bianca' eggplant (Solanum melongena)
'Little Fingers' eggplant (Solanum melongena)
'Striped Toga' eggplant (Solanum melongena)
'Dewako One Bite' eggplant (Solanum melongena)
container with eggplant (Solanum melongena) and thyme (Thymus sp.)
eggplant in container at my house
compact eggplant in patio container
RBG eggplants donated to an area food bank last summer (one of many rounds of picking!).  Varieties from bottom to top include 'Fairy Tale', 'Gretel' and 'Hansel' (all are AAS winners)
both above and below is the "Pumpkin-on-a-stick" or mock tomato (Solanum aethiopicum).  These eggplants (also edible) are used in fall containers at Olbrich Botanical Gardens (Madison,WI)

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