Monday, February 15, 2010

Plant Profile: The Eggplant

By Nina Berryman

Ripe Solanum melongena are indeed a sign of summer being in full swing. This heat-loving crop originated in India from very bitter, spiny plants. Anyone who harvests eggplants today knows that most varieties still have well concealed prickles that can surprise you if you are in a rush. A non-bitter variety, perhaps more like the ones we grow today, was mentioned in records from China in the 5th century B.C. From there, eggplants dispersed to Spain, Africa and Italy, where more varieties were developed. Eggplants get their name from early European varieties which were small, white, and egg-shaped.

S. melongena are in the Solanaceae family, along with tomatoes, peppers, potatoes and tobacco. This family is commonly referred to as the Nightshade family, I assume because of the shape of the flowers. Members of this family are easily distinguished by their flowers which have five united or partially united petals that form a symmetrical star shape. This family has many poisonous members, and before the delicacy of the eggplant and other edible nightshades was discovered in Europe, it was believed that only witches and fairies could eat them. The name Solanaceae comes from the Latin word “solamen” meaning “quieting,” since of the members of this family often contain alkaloids. Small amounts of alkaloids can be sedative, and large amounts can be deadly! I’m not sure if “solamen” was chosen as a euphemism for the deadly plants, or if in fact it refers to the plants that have a calming effect. Regardless, we are thrilled our eggplants are ready for eating and we hope you enjoy them as much as we do!

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