At first glance some may not think of aubergines or egg-plants as much more than novel foreign vegetables useful for bulking out tastier ingredients. And indeed the supermarket is the only way many are acquainted with these as relatively few gardeners grow them. Closely related to tomatoes, peppers and potatoes these solanum fruits were long regarded as risky food as also closely related to the poisonous nightshades. Indeed the foliage of all of these is poisonous as are the tomato like fruits of potatoes. Aubergine plants are much squatter than tomato plants more similar to sweet pepper plants with bigger softer leaves. They are grown like tomatoes and peppers requiring very similar treatment though needing no disbudding or deshooting as for tomatoes. Simply sow in warmth from late winter and pot up as they grow. Aubergines successfully crop in small bucket sized pots. Obviously plants in a greenhouse border give bigger yields but the colder soil will probably make them late. Slightly more demanding of warmth than either tomatoes or peppers aubergines are seldom successful outdoors except in exceptional years or positions, thus they must be grown under cover. Aubergines need warm bright conditions in a moist rich soil. This preference for bright light means that like tomatoes they prefer glass greenhouses to polythene tunnels with their diffuse light. However as regarded of relatively low value they’re often relegated to poorer positions than tomatoes or peppers: and so respond accordingly.
Given good positions they crop well and suffer few problems other than the ubiquitous aphids and occasionally red spider mite. The plants will probably need supporting with canes as most produce prodigious weights of fruits at any one time. Although fruits should not be left to ripen as sooner they are taken the more are produced. Be careful picking – not just for their sake but yours – the devils have tiny cacti like thorns around their green necks which are removed from commercial fruits. Don’t be put off as these may be rubbed off or avoided. Now you need not consider aubergines solely as utilitarian crop plants. The flowers are not unattractive, but the swelling purple fruits really are most ornamental because they’re so glossy. And there are many other than the usual purple sorts, many many more. You can grow aubergines in a host of colours and shapes, and each so shiny, almost plastic. Unlike decorative varieties of some crops, such as ornamental gourds, most of these fancy forms are still edible. Indeed ethnic cuisines from the Indian subcontinent have distinct uses for almost every version. It’s from some of these older varieties the plants get their other common, and far more English sounding, name of Egg-plant. For there are several varieties that produce ivory or creamy white, egg shaped, egg sized fruits. And personally I reckon aubergine is their name because they were so often used to take out the meat in cheap auberge, French inn, casseroles.