While eggplants are more popular in Europe and Asia, their demand in the U.S. specialty and ethnic markets continues to climb.

Long and slender, light to dark purple, green or white, Oriental types typically have thin skins, white flesh and a green or purple calyx.

Mediterranean varieties can be teardrop or globeshaped and usually sport various shades of purple with a green calyx and white flesh.

Those marketed as specialties often feature pink, violet or streaked skins with variable hues of purple. A common Thai specialty eggplant has small, round fruits with white blossom ends graduating to dark green on its shoulders, and a green calyx. Other Asian specialties include small, round, green, yellow or white fruits. An orange-red, small, ruffled Southeast Asian variety, prized by floral designers, is often marketed as a miniature pumpkin.

Trials of a genetically modified (GM) eggplant are being conducted in India and the Philippines, where eggplants are a significant crop. If approved by their agriculture departments, biotech eggplant could be commercialized in both countries in a few years. This GM variety resists the fruit and shoot borer, which reportedly destroys 40 percent of the South and Southeast Asian eggplant harvest. Even with costly spraying, the pest’s damage has been increasing.

The Agricultural Research Service (ARS) of the U. S. Department of Agriculture found several years ago that different genetic lines of eggplants have different levels of antioxidant phenolic compounds. Anti-oxidants have been associated with human health benefits. However, the eggplants with the highest amounts of phenolics may impart bitter flavors.

A current ARS project will determine the inheritance of eggplant antioxidant content, particularly the phenolic acid, to ultimately develop new breeding lines. Seed companies can access this germplasm to improve eggplant nutrition and fruit quality. 

The following new or nearly new varieties, all conventionally bred, were available to us by press time. Those bred specifically for greenhouse production will be covered in a later issue.

Seminis developed All-America Selections winners for 2009 and 2008. Gretel produces clusters of white, tender, elongated teardrop fruits with few seeds. This hybrid can be harvested at 3 inches in only 55 days after transplanting. The 2008 winner, Hansel, matures 3-inch fruit as early. Also a hybrid, the 3-foot plants yield well, and the elongated fruit can be left on the plant to reach 10 inches while remaining tender with few seeds. Like Gretel, Hansel produces fruit in clusters, but in a glossy, dark purple hue. Fairy Tale, a purple-and- white-striped hybrid eggplant, was designated an AAS winner in 2005.

Enza Zaden’s Black Pearl demonstrates high yields of firm, dark eggplants with spineless green calyxes. This hybrid can be harvested in 60 days for half-long teardrop- shaped fruit, and it matures to a tapered cylindrical eggplant.

Sameness, from Known-You Seed Co., Ltd., has long, oval, very dark, smooth fruit with a green calyx. It reaches 17.5 centimeters in length and 7.5 centimeters in diameter 80 days from sowing. The spreading medium-tall plants feature strong branching. 

Johnny’s Selected Seeds’ hybrid, light green Raveena, has elongated, cylindrical fruits that can be harvested from clusters at 3 to 9 inches. A heavy yielder, its plants are vigorous, even in northern climates.

Belen, developed by Western Seed, features oval, purple-black, firm fruit suitable for long-distance shipping. Its medium-tall spineless plant produces 4-by-7-inch fruit in about 70 days, which are also spineless.

Note: Several other eggplant varieties were described in the Asian vegetable column in our August 2008 issue.

The author is a writer-researcher specializing in agriculture. She currently resides in central Pennsylvania.