Eggplant (Solanum melongena) is a member of the nightshade family Solanaceae (Rindels 1997). It is called "eggplant" because the original plant produced small, oval-shaped white fruit that resembled an egg. Eggplant is native to India and Pakistan, and it was first domesticated more than 4,000 years ago (Khan 1979). Ancient Chinese records indicate that eggplant was cultivated in China as early as the first century BCE (Wang et al. 2008), and the Chinese crossbred varieties with different shapes and colors. The migration of the eggplant continued toward the Middle East and westward to Egypt during the 9th to 12th centuries CE (Bowman 2010). The Moors introduced eggplant to the Spanish, and the fruit became popular in Europe. The Spanish believed that eggplant was an aphrodisiac and called it berengenas or "the apple of love." The eggplant's popularity took a downward turn in northern Europe after Albert of Cologne referred to the fruit as mala insana or "mad apples," because it was thought to cause insanity when eaten. By the 1600s, however, several varieties migrated from Naples, Italy, to Germany. While the Spanish were traveling the globe, they took the eggplant to South America around 1650. In 1806, Thomas Jefferson (well-known for his promotion of horticulture) introduced the eggplant to the United States after receiving the fruit from a friend in France.
Eggplants belong to the same family of plants as tomato, tobacco, and pepper, and eggplants are susceptible to many of the same diseases that affect these plants. Viruses such as tobacco mosaic virus and tomato mosaic virus can be a common problem. Typically, these viral infections cause stunted plants, fruit and leaf malformation, mottling, and leaf mosaics. Definitive identification can only be made by a diagnostics lab, and once infected, these viral diseases can no longer be controlled (Mossler et al. 2012). Immediate removal of infected plants and control of weeds and insects is critical to prevent the spread of these diseases.
Hybrid eggplants are produced from two genetically different purebred varieties. The offspring are selected for certain characteristics, such as resistance to viruses and other desirable characteristics. However, these plants will not produce offspring identical to themselves, thus the original cross must be made each year (Delahaut and Newenhouse 1997). As opposed to the modern-day hybrid cultivars, heirlooms are old cultivars generated by handing down seeds from generation to generation. In order to be considered an heirloom, the eggplant variety must be true-to-type, open-pollinated, and it must be in use for at least 50 years. This means that pollination occurs by insects, birds, wind, or any other natural means, and the plants produced will be identical to the parent plant. Although heirlooms are not selected for traits such as disease resistance, they are usually selected for superior flavor, color, and texture. Because heirlooms are true-to-type, they will have consistent traits from one generation to the next; therefore, the seeds can be saved and regrown the following year.
Heirloom Eggplant Varieties
The following is a guide of heirloom eggplant varieties—from most to least popular—used in Florida (Table 1). The popularity was determined by a survey of seed suppliers, which included Baker Seeds, Burpee, High Mowing Seeds, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Tomato Grower Supply Company, Seeds of Change, Territorial Seed Company, and My Patriot Supply. When organic seeds were available, the USDA logo was inserted.
Heirloom Eggplant Varieties for Florida
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Khan, R. 1979. "Solanum melongena and its ancestral forms." p. 629–636. In J.G. Hawkes, R.N. Lester, and A.D. Skelding (Eds.), The biology and taxonomy of the Solanaceae. London: Academic Press.
Mossler, M., M. J. Aerts, and O.N. Nesheim. 2012. Florida Crop/Pest management profiles: Bell peppers. CIR 1240. Gainesville: University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pi040
Rindels, S. 1997. Eggplant. Iowa State Univ. Hort. and Home Pest News. IC-477(10). 12 June 2014. http://www.ipm.iastate.edu/ipm/hortnews/1997/5-2-1997/eggplant.html.
Wang, J., T. Gao, and S. Knapp. 2008. "Ancient Chinese literature reveals pathways of eggplant domestication." Ann. Bot. 102: 891–897.