Aubergine


Genus: Solanum   
Family: Solanaceae

Origins
Aubergine is a perennial, although it is sometimes cultivated as an annual due to its delicate nature.   

Part of the Solanaceae family, it is closely related to the tomato and the potato.  It originates from Asia but its exact origins are unconfirmed, it is believed to be a native of India, although there are also early references to the plant in China.  

How to Plant Aubergine
The aubergine thrives when planted in warm temperatures, the optimum being 21-29oC.  Easily blighted by frost or colder conditions, the vegetable stops growing below 12oC, therefore, in northern or colder regions of Europe, they tend to be cultivated in a greenhouse. Place Aubergine plants in a protected nursery between February and May, a time when they are vulnerable to late frosts.

Soil should be loose, a medium texture and well draining with a slightly acidic PH.  Ensure the soil is rich in humus, adding well rotted manure, where necessary, will aid fertility.  Prepare the soil in advance before planting the aubergine seeds or seedlings.

In warmer climates, seeds can be sown outdoors, directly into the soil between March and April.  Plant in an area of the garden that receives direct sunlight.  Place up to 12 seeds in a small hole that is 5cm deep.  Space the holes 30-50cm apart in a row and keep the rows 70-100cm apart.   
When the plant reaches 4-5cm, thin out the leaves on the stems in each hole to direct all the nutrients to the growing shoot.

Seeds can also be germinated in a warm, dry space.  When sowing indoors or in a sheltered space, scatter 2-4g of seed per m2, at a depth of 0.5-1cm.  Aubergine seeds can be sown indoors from January to March.  When the seedlings reach a height of 6-7cm, they are ready to be transplanted to a larger pot where they will grow for another couple of months.

Seedlings can also be purchased from garden centres or nurseries, ready to be planted.
When the plants reach 25 cm, pinch back the main stem, cutting off the tip to allow side shoots to develop and mature.  The Aubergine shoots will then need a stake for support.  Fertilise regularly, until the fruits begin to develop.  
Aubergines require regular application of fertiliser to the soil, fertilising the soil pre-planting, again when the fruit appears and finally, when harvesting begins.

When to harvest Aubergine
An herbaceous perennial, Aubergine can grow from 30cm up to over a metre high.   It will require support to grow and will benefit from staking and tying to reach its maximum height.
Aubergines have a bright and vibrant bloom with purple or white flowers and large, elongated or round fruits that are usually purple.   

Blooms will start to appear from July onwards and harvesting will normally begin in August, a good indicator that it is ready for harvest is when the skin turns from being dull to a rich glossy finish.  However, when the skin loses its lustrous finish, it is normally an indicator that it has become overripe and it is too late to harvest.

Did you know
Aubergine is often referred to outside of Europe as Eggplant, this name derives from the egg shape and colouring of certain species which were introduced to America by European explorers.

After harvesting, store in the fridge before cooking, the Aubergine should remain fresh for a couple of weeks.  

In its ripe format the fruit can be bitter and unpalatable thanks to the presence of Solanine which can be toxic, but once cooked, has a rich, pleasant and complex taste.  It is used in cooking for various dishes and often salted beforehand to ensure that all the bitterness is removed but also, the flesh of the Aubergine has an ability to soak up large quantities of fat during cooking, salting prevents this.   

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