Tasty eggplants that you can’t buy: grow these heirlooms yourself

eggplant Listada courtesy Seed Savers Exchange
Eggplant Listada. Photo courtesy Seed Savers Exchange

by Connie Oswald Stofko

You may have heard that if you want flavorful tomatoes, go for heirloom varieties. But did you know that there are heirloom and specialty varieties in other vegetables including eggplants, cucumbers and peppers?

“These are varieties that you wouldn’t even see in a supermarket,” said Patti Jablonski-Dopkin, general manager of Urban Roots Cooperative Garden Market, 428 Rhode Island St., Buffalo.

Urban Roots carries about 35 varieties of heirloom and specialty vegetable plants.

“We choose varieties that are unique, with wonderful flavor and are easy to grow,” she said.

Heirloom plants come from seeds that have been handed down through the generations. How far back those seeds must go varies who you are talking to.

“Some people say 100 years, others say 50 years,” Jablonski-Dopkin said. “Some say before 1945; around 1950 or 1951 was when hybrids became popular.

“Specialty plants might not be that old, but have been handed down.”

Heirloom plants should also be open-pollinated, meaning pollinated by insects, birds, wind or other natural means. They should retain their original traits from one generation to the next. If you plant a seed from a hybrid, the offspring won’t be the same as the parent.

Eggplant 'Pintung Long' courtesy Seed Savers Exchange
Eggplant ‘Pintung Long’. Photo courtesy Seed Savers Exchange

Many of the heirloom and specialty plants at Urban Roots are used in ethnic cooking, ranging from Italy to Southeast Asia, she noted.

Eggplants

“I grew eggplant for the first time last year,” Jablonski-Dopkin said. “It was a bushy plant with dark green foliage. It got a pretty purple flower.”

You don’t need a lot of space to grow eggplants. You can grow them in a container (the pot should be at least 10- to 12-inches in diameter) and raised beds as well in the ground. If you use containers or raised beds, she suggests fertilizing regularly with an organic fertilizer.

Eggplants like full sun.

“I recommend waiting until Memorial Day to plant,” Jablonski-Dopkin said, “so the soil temperature is warm enough, especially if you are planting directly into the ground, but even if you plant in containers. Just because we have one sunny, warm day and you’re in a short-sleeved shirt, it doesn’t mean it’s time to plant.”

It’s not just the daytime temperatures, but the nighttime temperatures that you have to consider. Nighttime temperatures should be 50 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer.

“We don’t want you to buy plants twice,” she said. “We want you to be successful. If the plant is struggling in the beginning, it’s going to struggle the whole way through.

Eggplant 'Thai Green' courtesy SeedSavers Exchange
Eggplant ‘Thai Green’. Photo courtesy Seed Savers Exchange

“You can even plant two weeks after Memorial Day and still get a great harvest.”

All three of the varieties below are heirlooms. Not only is the fruit tasty, you get a large crop.

These eggplants can be used any way you like, including raw, she said.

  • Eggplant ‘Listada’ comes from Italy. It has smaller seeds, so you don’t get the bitter taste you may get with larger seeds. The fruit is beautiful with purple and white stripes.
  • Eggplant ‘Pintung Long” has a long, skinny fruit instead of a bulbous fruit. It comes from Taiwan and is used throughout South and East Asia. It’s very dense and is often used for pickling and chutney.
  • Eggplant ‘Thai Green’ is used a lot in Thai dishes such as curries and salads.

Other heirloom & specialty vegetables at Urban Roots

Tomatoes

  • ‘Lemon Drop’ (cherry)
  • ‘Amy’s Apricot’ (cherry)
  • ‘Russian Big Roma’ (medium)
  • ‘Blondkopfchen’ (cherry)
  • ‘Brown Berry’ (cherry)
  • ‘Marizol Red’ (big)
  • ‘Persimmon’ (big)
  • ‘Vernissage Yellow’ (golf ball)
  • ‘Bison’ (medium)
  • ‘Gill’s All Purpose’ (medium)
  • ‘Sudduth Strain (big)

Cucumbers

  • ‘Suyo Long’  
  • ‘Poona Keera’
  • ‘Armenian’
  • ‘Mexican Sour Gherkin’
  • ‘Mousemelon’
  • ‘English Telegraph’

Peppers

  • ‘Jimmy Nardello’
  • ‘Serrano’
  • ‘Shishito’
  • ‘Marconi Red’
  • ‘Challeano’
  • ‘Fish’
  • ‘Buran’
  • ‘Black Hungarian’

Miscellaneous

  • ‘Malabar’ spinach
  • Purple tomatillo
  • Ground cherry

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