Heirloom Eggplant Varieties
Find out which heirloom eggplant varieties you should plant in your garden and try a recipe for stewed eggplant.
August 2, 2013
By William Woys Weaver
Heirloom Vegetable Gardening by William Woys Weaver is the culmination of some thirty years of first-hand knowledge of growing, tasting and cooking with heirloom vegetables. A staunch supporter of organic gardening techniques, Will Weaver has grown every one of the featured 280 varieties of vegetables, and he walks the novice gardener through the basics of planting, growing and seed saving. Sprinkled throughout the gardening advice are old-fashioned recipes — such as Parsnip Cake, Artichoke Pie and Pepper Wine — that highlight the flavor of these vegetables. The following excerpt on heirloom eggplant varieties was taken from chapter 17, "Eggplants."
To locate mail order companies that carry these heirloom eggplant varieties, use our Custom Seed and Plant Finder. Check out our collection of articles on growing and harvesting heirloom vegetables in Gardening With Heirloom Vegetables.
A Brief History of Eggplant Varieties
It must be a peculiarity of our culture that in spite of the great diversity in the world of eggplants, Americans have been slow to expand their taste for this vegetable. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, American seedsmen could list perhaps three eggplant varieties, about the same for tomatoes, only to see the tomato explode into a national cult following the Civil War. A similar taste revolution is presently underway with peppers, but the same cannot be said for the eggplant. Perhaps it is the fate of the eggplant to remain a captive of its weaknesses; its demand for hot summer nights in order to fruit, its attractiveness to the destructive flea beetle, and most important, its defenselessness against fusarium and verticillium wilt. Such a preamble of maladies would be enough to frighten off the most determined of gardeners, yet all things considered, the eggplant is not as difficult to cultivate as many would think.
There has been a recent influx of new and exotic eggplant varieties from Asia and Africa, many of them belonging to the so-called tomato-fruited species (Solanum integrifolium), which is hardier, more fruitful, and more resistant to flea beetles. Some of these, like the orange-fruited Turkish Italian, are eaten when green, since most of the members of this species are bitter when ripe. The Hmung Red, introduced from Southeast Asia at the close of the Vietnam War, is extremely bitter, but it is that very characteristic that Asian palates find attractive. The Turkish Italian was reintroduced commercially in 1990; at the turn of this century it had been introduced as an ornamental, its fruits resembling waxy tangerines.
In 1575 Leonhard Rauwolf encountered eggplants while collecting botanical specimens at Aleppo and noted that the locals called them by two names: melongena and bedenigian. He made no mention of colors in his journal, but it is evident that plant collectors in Europe were actively gathering several distinct varieties. The 1613 Hortus Eystettensis (1994) showed a magnificent eggplant bush loaded with fruits in various stages of ripeness. The eggplants themselves were about the size of goose eggs, the familiar purple color, and very thorny about the calyx and stem. The drawing on page 161, based on a Philadelphia still life painting from the early 1820s, shows not only the same sharp thorns but also the large type of lobed fruit then considered the best variety to cultivate. Not without reason, this old variety was known as Large Prickly Stemmed Purple and often grew to the size of a soccer ball. Seedy and tough, it has been replaced by smaller, more flavorful varieties.
The eggplants that Rauwolf saw in 1575 originated in India, but many centuries before then they had spread to China and the Near East. It is believed that they were introduced into Spain by the Arabs, and from there into Italy. Eggplants are creatures of the tropics, thriving in hot climates with night temperatures above 50°F, and for this reason they have become thoroughly acculturated into the cuisines of the Mediterranean region. A very old Greek variety in my collection called Phlaska is large, purple-black, and more or less teardrop in shape. It is a larger version of the eggplant depicted in the Hortus Eystettensis and dates at least from the 1820s. It is the closest thing I grow to the variety known as Large American depicted in the Album Vilmorin (1871,23).
Large American, a variety developed here in the early nineteenth century, was by far the most widely grown during that period. It was also known as American Large Purple, with pear-shaped fruit measuring about 8 inches long and 7 inches in diameter at its thickest point. Plants normally produced two large fruits and a very small third one, so it was necessary to have quite an extensive bed of them if fruit was to be harvested all summer. This and many of the other old varieties mentioned by Fearing Burr (1865, 597–601) have passed into oblivion, or have been so improved that today they hardly resemble their heirloom ancestors. The four varieties that I have chosen for this section have the benefit of still being available while offering a range of shapes and flavors. Under most of these I have mentioned related varieties that are also worthy of cultivation.
The culture of eggplant is very similar to that of peppers, for seed must be started indoors early in the spring, preferably February. After the plants have germinated and are large enough to thin, move the strongest ones into small pots so that they can have a head start before being set out after the threat of frost has passed. Plant these 12 to 14 inches apart in the warmest, sunniest part of the garden. If they are large-fruiting varieties, assume that they will require staking once fruiting begins. If it should appear that they are being attacked by wilt (the plants will look limp, as though they have not been watered), pull up the plants and destroy them, preferably by burning. Do not bring them into contact with other garden plants, particularly tomatoes and potatoes, and never put plants affected by wilt in a compost heap. This will only spread the disease further. Scatter wood ashes thickly over the infected soil. After a few rains have soaked the ashes into the ground, plant the spot with onions or leeks and continue to plant them on that spot for three years. Turn the soil over in the fall to expose it to winter freezing, which helps to sterilize it.
Eggplants are primarily self-pollinating, but varieties within the same species will cross due to bees, which visit the flowers on occasion. For seed-saving purposes, isolate the plants by at least 50 feet. Seeds must be ripened in the fruit, so fruit selected for seed must be left on the plants until it turns yellow or brown and begins to wither. Seed can be squeezed or scraped out of the fruit over a bowl of water. The good seed will sink to the bottom. It then can be washed and drained in a sieve. Spread on paper to dry for at least three weeks, then store in jars like pepper seed. Seed will remain viable for about seven years.
'Black Beauty' Eggplant
This is the most recent of the varieties I have selected, for it was not introduced until 1902. Considered one of the earliest of the large-fruited varieties, coming to crop about 10 to 14 days ahead of the others, it was popular with truck gardeners. It was also the only eggplant listed in Jung Quality Seeds (1929, 7), the catalog of the J. W. Jung Seed Company of Randolph, Wisconsin, for the very simple reason that it was the only eggplant that would produce well in gardens in short-season areas of the country. Not only that, its history is rather interesting.
David Landreth’s Land-und Garten-Kalender (1875, 61), a German-language almanac and seed catalog, listed only three varieties of eggplants that year, all of them purple: Large Round Purple, Large Early Purple, and Black Pekin. According to the Maryland Farmer (July 1867, 197), the Black Pekin had been introduced from China in 1866 by Boston seedsman Charles Hovey. It quickly became one of the most popular varieties of the period and was crossed with Large Early Purple to create the variety later introduced as Imperial Black Beauty, otherwise known as Black Beauty. This hybrid combined the jet-black color and smoothness of its Chinese parent and the early bearing qualities of the American strain.
Unlike many of the earlier large-fruited eggplants, Black Beauty produces as many as 8 to 10 oval-shaped fruits, each weighing from 1 to 3 pounds, per plant. But to maintain that kind of productivity, it is necessary to pick the fruit regularly. The calyxes are free of spines, and the fruit hangs close to the main stem. All of these are good points, yet I suggest staking the plants because they topple easily in heavy rains, and if the fruit touches the ground, it is likely to become discolored on the blossom end, perhaps even wormy before it ripens.
This variety is recorded in this country as early as 1855, but little thus far has surfaced concerning its true origin, which is presumed to be Japan. It was popular because of it size, about 9 inches long and about 1 1/2 to 2 inches in diameter. This long, narrow club shape made it better for slicing and frying and not as pithy as some of the larger-fruited sorts. Furthermore, it was extremely hardy and could be raised in most parts of the North and even in southern Canada.
The flowers are large, purple, and quite showy. Unfortunately, the calyxes are thorny, and some of the branches also have occasional thorns. The bushes are rather spreading in habit and sometimes break down during heavy rain, thus I recommend staking. For some reason this variety is less prone to flea beetles than Black Beauty.
This variety has been crossed with a long white variety to produce several handsome strains with purple stripes, among them Antigua, a 90-day variety with 8-inch fruit, and a long, slightly twisting variety I found in Greece called Tsakonike. The latter variety is best harvested when 6 inches long and 1 3/4 inches in diameter. It is extremely fragrant when cooked. All of these long, narrow varieties turn a yellowish brown when ripe for seed-saving purposes.
A popular way of cooking this type of eggplant was stewing it, then baking it in a casserole dish. The following comes from Mrs. M. E. Porter’s New Southern Cookery Book (1871, 141).
Purple eggplants are better than the white. Put them whole into a pot with plenty of water; let them simmer till quite tender. Take them out, drain, peel and mash them smooth in a deep dish. Mix them with grated breadcrumbs, powdered sweet marjoram, a large piece of butter, and a few pounded cloves, grate a layer of breadcrumbs over the top, put in an oven and brown; send to table on the same dish.
The Listada de Gandia is truly one of the most beautiful eggplants I have grown. It was originally introduced into southern France during the early 1850s as the Striped Guadaloupe. The Guadeloupe eggplant, an old cross of a purple and a white variety, was illustrated in the Album Vilmorin (1870, 21). Fearing Burr mentioned the Guadaloupe eggplant in his Field and Garden Vegetables of America (1865, 599), but only in passing, since his information came from the Vilmorin garden book of 1856. Frankly, I have not found many references to it in American seed catalogs of the period, although James Vick did offer it in 1872, “fine fruit and beautiful” at twice the cost of his other eggplants.
This is a hot-weather variety true to its tropical origins, for it thrives when temperatures stay in the high nineties. When last year’s (1995’s) merciless heat wave was so hot even the flea beetles had trouble moving about, I had a bumper crop. Under normal conditions, this variety requires about 110 to 120 days, but if it is planted early enough, I have never had difficulty with it in Pennsylvania. I would not recommend it, however, for New England or the Upper Midwest. The plants themselves are small, ranging from 12 to 14 inches tall, and the fruit is likewise variable, most about 6 inches long, oval, and not too seedy. It is better to harvest the fruit a little bit young than to wait for the skin to toughen, a sure sign that old age has set in.
The earliest type of eggplant to reach England in the 1500s was a white ornamental variety with fruit the size, color, and shape of a chicken egg. As a result, English is the only European language that associates the melongena with the appearance of an egg. This quaint old variety is edible when very young (at about 2 inches long), and for this reason I have chosen to include it in my list of recommended heirlooms. It is also quite a conversation piece for children, and anyway, I like to grow it. I have mixed several specimens with the fruits of the Black Egg variety and a real brown chicken egg, just to give a sense of scale. There is also a Dwarf White Egg, which grows on a smaller plant and has fruit the size of duck’s egg, about 1 3/4 inches long. I raise it every other year so that there is no chance of crossing it with the larger variety.
It is not difficult to find references to the Old White Egg in early American sources, for quite a few people in this country grew the plant as an ornamental. Boston seedsman John Russell was careful to point out in his 1828 seed list that the small white sort was purely decorative, and Roland Green (1829, 26) included it in his book on flower gardening for this very reason. The plant has the added benefit of having its fruits turn bright yellow when ripe, which gives the whole plant an odd Easter-like appearance at the end of summer, especially if grown with one of the purple egg varieties. The most stunning of the nonwhite egg varieties, however, is the Black Egg, which produces perfectly edible 3-inch egg-shaped fruits. The stems of the plant are also black, which adds to its striking appearance. This is an old variety from China that was collected by the USDA in the 1930s along with Manchuria, a green egg-shaped variety, also edible. All of these egg-shaped varieties are prolific producers on compact bushes about 2 feet high. They will also cross with one another, so they should never be grown together for seed-saving purposes, unless of course it is the object to create some curiously marbled varieties. I am working on one right now that is green, purple, and white. It might look pretty interesting on a focaccia.
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Illustrations Courtesy William Woys Weaver. Photo By Fotolia/foryouinf.