Eggplant (Solanum melongena) is a species of the nightshade flowering plant known in Europe as the Aubergine. It is related to both the tomato and the potato. The plant grows anywhere from 16 to 57 inches tall, with large, coarsely-lobed leaves that are 4 to 8 inches long and about 3 inches wide. The stem is often spiny, and the flower is white to purple. The fruits of “common” eggplants are elongated, egg-shaped, glossy, dark purplish-black fruits about 4½ to 9 inches long and 2 to 4 inches wide. They have white flesh with a meaty texture that turns brown very shortly after the fruit is cut open.
In addition to the “common” eggplant described above, there are many other varieties of eggplant that produce fruit of different color, size, and shape. Colors vary from white to yellow or green, as well as reddish-purple and dark purple. Some cultivars have a color gradient – going from white at the stem to bright pink to deep purple or even black to the end of the fruit. Green or purple cultivars with white-striping also exist. Chinese varieties are typically shaped like a narrower, slightly pendulous cucumber, and are sometimes called Japanese Eggplants.
Some varieties of the different types are:
1. “Common” oval to elongated-oval-shape with black skin include 'Harris Special Hibush', 'Burpee Hybrid', 'Black Magic', 'Classic', 'Dusky', and 'Black Beauty'.
2. Slim, purple-black skin include 'Little Fingers', 'Ichiban', 'Pingtung Long', and 'Tycoon'.
3. Green skin include 'Louisiana Long Green' and 'Thai (Long) Green'.
4. White skin includes 'Dourga'.
5. Traditional egg-shaped white-skin include 'Casper' and 'Easter Egg'.
6. Bi-colored skin with color gradient include 'Rosa Bianca', 'Violetta di Firenze', 'Bianca Smufata di Rosa' (heirloom), and 'Prosperosa' (heirloom).
7. Bi-colored skin with striping include 'Listada de Gandia' and 'Udumalapet'.
Eggplant grown in climates other than subtropical fares better when seeds are started 8 to10 weeks prior to the frost-free date, then transplanted into the garden after danger of frost is past. Most pests and diseases that afflict tomato, pepper, and potato are also troublesome to eggplant. For this reason, it should not be planted in areas previously occupied by any of those close relatives. A planting location of eggplant should not be used to grow them again for at least 4-years. Common eggplant pests include potato beetles, flea beetles, aphids, and spider mites. Good sanitation and crop rotation practices are extremely important for controlling fungal disease – the most serious being Verticillium.
Eggplant flesh is smooth, becomes tender when cooked and develops a rich, complex flavor. Prior to cooking, many recipes advise salting, rinsing and draining the sliced fruit to soften it and to remove any bitterness – especially in earlier varieties. Some modern varieties do not need this treatment. The fruit is capable of absorbing large amounts of cooking fats and sauces, making for very rich dishes, but salting reduces the amount of oil absorbed. Eggplant, due to its texture and bulk, is often used as a meat substitute in vegetarian cuisine.