Where to Find Eggplant Growing

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"Where to Find Eggplant Growing"
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The short answer is: in the heat! Eggplants love warmth, flourishing in Florida, North Carolina and other hot and swampy southern areas of the United States. Needing a minimum of at least 100 frost-free days to mature, the only way to grow Eggplant in the northern US is inside a brick oven (literally.) More on that later.

Nobody can quite determine the origin of Eggplant, though earliest references point to China or India-somewhere on the Asian continent. DNA sequencing will probably answer that question for us eventually; however, the mystery of its origins only heighten my interest in the plant. Eggplant is a cousin to tomatoes and potatoes, which though in the same family, originated in the western hemisphere, rather than the east. Botanically this is an interesting situation, as native origins of plant families generally cluster in similar areas. (Sidebar-cactus plants are mostly native to the "new world" (western hemisphere) while euphorbias are found in the "old world" (eastern hemisphere). Because the two genera have such similar appearances, they are often mistaken for one another. The similar appearances are an example of plants adapting to similar conditions on completely different continents, thus appearing similar, but not sharing the same genes.)

I remember, as a child, being fascinated by the purple flowers and bright red berries of a humongous deadly nightshade plant growing over the fence in our yard. The only thing that kept me from touching the plant was the fear of eating ANYTHIHNG that did not come from the grocery store. (A child-raising technique of 20th century America, which most likely has cost emergency rooms thousands of dollars in lost revenue, and has lowered the number of needed phone answerers at Poison Control.) Fascinating, then, is is not, that tomatoes and potatoes-beloved staples of the American diet-and eggplant, the mysterious, oft talked about, rarely seen cousin from afar, are part of this highly poisonous family. How did we start eating eggplant?

I never ate eggplant until I had my own vegetable garden to maintain (on someone else's dollar). I never thought about eggplant until I planted a "Pizza Patch" in the little children's vegetable garden at Fort Ticonderoga in New York. I learned about the idea of the pizza patch from the book "Sunflower House," by Sharon Lovejoy, and our visitors delighted in the resulting garden. I quickly had to delight in finding ways to keep bugs away from the plants, as eggplants are enjoyed not only by humans, but by almost every insect, virus and bacterial infection affecting plants. A survey of "disease resistant cultivars of eggplants" turns up depressingly few options. After concocting a noxious mess of blended raw egg, garlic, water, and cayenne pepper, I painted it on the eggplants' leaves to keep the bugs from chewing. That was great, except my mix was a little strong, even for the spiny, hairy, seemingly hostile eggplant. Painted areas of the plants immediately turned brown and fell off. I might have killed the bugs, but I almost killed the plants.

The vegetable gardens at the Fort are directly outside of the King's Garden, a one-acre, historic, Marian Coffin designed, ornamental flower garden. The Garden is surrounded by a tall brick wall, which radiates heat, even in the chilly northern summers. After the (barely reached) 100 days of heat, battle with bugs, and crafty deer repellent mechanisms, our eggplants bore fruit and we ate.

Eggplants are actually fruit, as they are the reproductive part of the plant. You will immediately know this when you cut one open, as the seeds inside turn brown immediately. Eggplants must be eaten no more than a couple of days after harvest to enjoy their full flavor. When picked, they immediately turn bitter and inedible. "Eggplant" is the north American name for the fruit because first cultivars grown here looked like eggs. The French name, aubergine, refers to the deep purple varieties. Because eggplants love heat, no matter their origins, they have found their way into farms and traditional dishes around the world. Greeks make moussaka, a lovely, layered dish with eggplant and cinnamon. French serve ratatouille.

The short answer to where eggplants grow is, truly, in the heat. Avid consumers of this mysterious fruit know that they will grow anywhere, if given enough care, tents, and patient bug patrol picking, because, even though you can get them there, eggplants don't grow in grocery stores. I like them best off the vine, fried in olive oil, with horseradish aioli. Enjoy!

More about this author: Katherine Elzer-Peters

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