Solanum melongena – solanum is Latin for nightshade, melongena is Greek for ‘sprung from a fruit tree’.
The purple eggplant, now so common, was domesticated in India and Burma; it arrived in China by the fourth century. Arabic people introduced Europeans to the delights of eggplant in the seventh century.
There is great variation in eggplant fruits, from the common large purple to the pea-sized yellow ones of Thailand. The first eggplants grown in England were small and egg-shaped, hence their English name.
Eggplants need warmth and a long summer to be mature enough for seed saving. If you have short summers, then you may need to start seeds off indoors to produce any fruit at all. They are best transplanted, very carefully, when the day temperatures rise to around 20 ºC. Rooted cuttings can also be started indoors. Eggplant bushes do not tolerate frost.
Saving The Seed
Eggplant is a perennial which behaves and is treated as an annual in cold climates, so that young plants are started fresh from seed every spring. It is self-pollinating, but a small amount of crossing between varieties is likely to occur with insect activity.
There are no hard and fast rules about safe isolation distances. For example, the recommended isolation distance for certified seeds in the USA is 400 metres, reducing to 45 metres if there is a tall dense planting between varieties. Do not let these outrageously long isolation distances rob you of the experience of growing as many sorts of eggplants as you would like to eat. For pure seeds, these distances can be lessened considerably in the home garden. You can grow and save seeds of at least four varieties, separated by 10 metres.
Choose the first fruits of the most vigorous and healthy plants and leave until they are about to fall off the plant. Keeping several fruit of the same variety but from different plants will ensure long-term maintenance of the variety. Pick and hang the mature fruit in a shed until their colour dulls.
Access the seeds by cutting off the top of the fruit and grating or blending the base, which contains a greater density of seeds. If using a blender, cut into cubes and blend with water on a very slow speed. Pour out the mass and collect the seeds. Wash and spread seeds thinly on a sieve to dry for a day or so, before placing into a paper bag and hanging for a couple of weeks before storing.
Storing The Seed
The seeds are viable for five years or can be frozen for longer storage. There are 200 seeds to the gram.
Eggplant is sometimes sliced and sun-dried for winter use in arid zones. Very thin slices are often dried and preserved in herbs and oil. A common way to cook eggplant is to cut them into centimetre-thick slices, salt them and leave them to sweat for 30 minutes before patting them dry to get them ready for frying. Ratatouille Niçoise is a stew of eggplant, onion, capsicum, zucchini and tomato, heavily laced with mediterranean herbs. The leaves are used as a poultice to soften the scar tissue left after burns, while in India whole eggplants are dried and crushed to a powder and used as a tooth cleaner.
On The Lookout
Round and long, purple and white varieties are often grown by Middle Eastern communities. A great diversity of green, white and yellow varieties, ranging from tiny ones like a bunch of grapes through to enormous fruits, are found in Asian and Australian gardens.
This is an edited extract from Michel and Jude Fanton’s book The Seed Savers’ Handbook: A Permaculture Seed (Seed Savers Network 2020)