Gardening for You: Eggplants make exceptional ornamental edibles


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Mar 21, 2023

Gardening for You: Eggplants make exceptional ornamental edibles

Gardeners that have never mixed eggplants with the color palate of their garden

Gardeners that have never mixed eggplants with the color palate of their garden are missing an edible with exceptional ornamental appeal. Not everybody likes to eat eggplant yet the shiny showy fruit, pale violet flowers shaded by large, grey-green fuzzy leaves give a decorative splash when interplanted with other ornamentals.

Like peppers and tomatoes, two other members of the Solanaceae family, eggplant flowers are pendulate with fruit developing below the flower cap. Flowers of eggplant are much larger than pepper and tomato with pronounced yellow anthers that add a dash to their ornamental flair.

In their native Asia, eggplants are tender perennials but in temperate zones that experience freezes, eggplants are grown as warm-season annuals. They are one of the few crops that keep setting fruit in high temperatures.

The fruit of the eggplant is intriguing, warranting some explanation of its floral botany. The following paragraphs describe what is going on as an eggplant fruit is formed.

Horticulturally, eggplants are floral bundles. The floral bundle is an ingenious composite of petals and male and female tissues. These tissues fuse following fertilization of the flower, initiating divisions of cells that expand and swell, forming the floral bundle that becomes the fruit. As the immature fruit develops it expands down through the outer ring of the flower's green sepals (SEE-pels). The sepals continue to grow as they cover the developing eggplant like a tight-fitting cap. Just as their cousins, peppers and tomatoes, the eggplant fruit dangles from plant stems.

Unlike peppers and tomatoes, eggplants are not easily plucked from the stem. Eggplants are harvested by severing fruit from the floral stem; the correct horticultural term for floral stem is pedicel (PED-ih-sihl). After the pedicel is cut, the sepals hug the top of the eggplant, staying attached to the fruit looking like a pixie's hat. It is critical to keep sepals connected to fruit after harvest and kept intact until preparing for the table. Eggplants harvested without sepal caps quickly rot.

Ripened eggplants are glossy and firm. Over-ripe fruit appear dull, lose color, soften, and have a yellowish tone.

Eggplants are best grown in the garden from transplants. Seeds need soil temperatures between 75° and 95°F and will not germinate in cool soils. Eggplants make excellent container plants and charming ornamental borders.

Large, dark purple eggplants are commonly found in the grocer, but many other varieties have unusual shapes, colors, and variegated patterning like egg-shaped, white; globe-shaped, rose; and elongated dark purple Asian types.

The "Fairy Tale" eggplants in the accompanying photo have tender, sweet, bright, shiny lavender skins with streaks of white. It is a prolific bearer of small, 4-inch fruit in hot weather.

As with all eggplants, harvest when just-ripe as over-ripe fruit are bitter.

Ellen Peffley taught horticulture at the college level for 28 years, 25 of those at Texas Tech, during which time she developed two onion varieties. She is now the sole proprietor of From the Garden, a market garden farmette. You can email her at [email protected]