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All-american Selections
Hansel hybrid has clusters of glossy, dark purple fruits.

EggplantsS! Such interesting plants. I have grown and eaten these for years but knew little about them. I must thank the National Garden Bureau for designating the Year of the Eggplant and providing interesting information to learn more about these fascinating vegetables.

This vegetable is believed to come to us from India via China and then the Mideast. It was eventually introduced to European tables by Louis XIV during the 1600s, but it received a less than enthusiastic reception. It was said to be "as large as pears but with bad qualities."

Even more damaging were myths that eggplants caused fever, epilepsy and even insanity. Like tomatoes, potatoes and other nightshade family plants, it was once viewed as poisonous and grown as an ornamental because of its beautiful purple star-shaped flowers and colorful fruits.

Thomas Jefferson introduced eggplant to the United States and grew the vegetables in his gardens at Monticello. It met with limited success until the late 1800s when Chinese and Italian immigrants arrived in America and started growing these to prepare their traditional dishes.

My Greek neighbor shared plants with me when I was young. I ate them fresh, battered and fried or sliced, because cooking the myriad dishes was beyond my ability. Favorites include Greek moussaka, Middle East baba ganoush, Italian eggplant parmigiana, and French ratatouille and Asian stir-fries and curries.

Newer varieties are a far cry from the large, globular, purple fruits I grew. They include small, pealike, to egg-shaped, to long and slender fruits. Some even look like eggs. Colors range from dark purple to white with shades of rose, violet, green, yellow and stripes to add more interest.

In Utah, eggplants grow as annuals because of the frost, but they are actually tender perennials. Leave enough space because the plants grow up to 4 feet in height with a similar spread. They branch well and the leaves are often covered with hair and sometimes have tiny spines.

Although the skins are different colors, the flesh is usually creamy white and has tiny seeds of a similar color. The fruit are ready to harvest 45-90 days after transplanting. One caution is to pick them when they are young and tender. Older fruits get tough and bitter.

The five basic shape groups classify them as globe, elongated or cylindrical, egg-shaped, specialty and pea eggplants. The most common type in Utah is the globe or oval eggplants. They have large, deep purple, pear-shaped fruits that are used for stuffing, baking and grilling. Pay close attention when growing these because they are likely to get old and tough.

These are a few varieties you might want to try. The days to harvest are in parentheses:

Black Beauty (80) is the classic eggplant with deep purple skin and large 8-to-10 inch fruits. Dusky Hybrid (63) is an improved variety with 5-to-7 inch purple-black fruits.

I prefer growing the Japanese varieties because the skins are not as tough. Ichiban hybrid (58) produces long deep purple-black fruits on very productive plants. Millionaire hybrid (60) produces long, glossy black fruits that are almost seedless. Orient Charm hybrid (65) has pale lavender, fluorescent pink or pastel pink streaked with white fruits. Machiaw hybrid (65) resembles a long, thin cucumber with a light purple skin. Asian Bride (70) has long, thin fruits with pale white outer skins streaked with lavender.

Two recent All-America Selections Award winners (the first eggplants to win in almost 70 years) are Fairy Tale hybrid (51), with white fruits striped in violet and purple shades, and Hansel hybrid (55), with clusters of glossy, dark purple fruits. Both have excellent flavor and texture.

Round, egg-shaped eggplants come in a variety of colors. Easter Egg (52) is highly ornamental but has delicious, egg-shaped white fruits. Kermit hybrid (60) is about the size of a golf ball with green and white stripes. Turkish Italian Orange (75) bears brilliant orange, egg-shaped fruits that are typically eaten when young and green.

Other specialty and heirloom eggplants are Bambino hybrid (45) with miniature 1- to 1 1/2-inch eggplants and Calliope hybrid (64), an Indian-type eggplant with purple and white streaked fruits with a rich purple skin streaked with white. Casper (70) is an elongated white eggplant with 6-inch fruit, and Rosa Bianca (88 days) is the classic Italian heirloom variety. Last but not least are the small, round-fruited pea eggplants that grow in clusters that resemble bunches of grapes. These are most popular in Asian cuisine to add to spicy curries.

Transplant eggplants after all danger of frost is past. They need full sun, space to grow and rich, well-drained soil. Harvest them before the seeds get large and skins get tough. Explore some new garden options during the Year of the Eggplant, and you might find some tasty garden treats.

Larry A. Sagers is the horticulture specialist, Utah State University Extension at Thanksgiving Point.