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Abundant Future: Cultivating Diversity in Garden, Farm, and Field



Solanum melongena 'Black Beauty', Solanum melongena 'Pingtung Long', Solanum melongena 'Listada de Gandia', Solanum melongena 'Casper', Solanum melongena 'Thai Green', Solanum integrifolium

Unlike many solanaceous plants we eat today (tomatoes, potatoes, peppers), eggplants come to us from the old world. It’s believed they descend from small thorny weeds in India that still grow there today. These ancient relatives bear green, marble-sized, extremely bitter, pungent fruit. Initially, eggplants were used medicinally, cosmetically and as ornamental annuals in gardens. After centuries of cultivation particularly in China, eggplants were considered edible. As Arab traders and other wanderers travelled the globe, so did eggplants, often receiving an ambivalent reception from humans. When eggplants arrived in Italy, they were dubbed mala insana or “mad apple.” It was thought, if you ate one, you would go insane. This may be because they were so bitter and pungent, or because the fruits resembled mandrake fruits, another nightshade with narcotic properties.

In England, the herbalist Gerard(e) (1597) warned his readers to enjoy their beauty, but not to eat them: “in Egypt and Barbarie, they use to eate the fruite of Mala insana boiled or rosted under ashes with oile, vinegar, and pepper, as people use to eate Mushroms. But I rather wishe Englishmen to content themselves with the meate and sauce of our own country, than with fruite and sauce eaten with such perill: for doubtlesse these apples have a mischeevous quality; the use thereof is utterly to be forsaken. ...Therefore it is better to esteeme this plant and have him in the garden for your pleasure and the rarenesse thereof, then for any virtue or good qualities yet knowne.”[1]

Most of the eggplants in the painting were grown at Plum Forest Farm, Vashon Island, where they started referring to me as “the eggplant lady” and would laugh while I examined their eggplants very closely. ‘Thai Green’ came from Uwajimaya, a Japanese grocery store in Seattle.

The white eggplants I grew in pots on my deck, safe from deer and raccoons.

I had the eggplants roughed out in the painting but something was missing. Orange! Orange makes green and purple sing. Turkish eggplants are orange, but it was too late in the season to grow one and I had never seen any for sale. I continued with the painting and infused some orange in the underpainting. I knew it was not enough. I put the painting away. In late October, I walked into my local grocery store and saw some plants being marketed as “Halloween” decorations. The plants had little green and orange pepper-like fruits and black stems. They were labelled “Pumpkin on a Stick”. I thought, if only they were eggplants. Then I noticed thorns on the stems, which implies eggplants. I bought one, took it home, researched it. Solanum aethiopicum is an eggplant relative!

[1] Gerard(e), J. The Herball: or Generall Historie of Plantes. London, Norton, 1597.


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Read more about this artist’s work: 23rd Annual

Solanum melongena 'Black Beauty', Solanum melongena 'Pingtung Long', Solanum melongena 'Listada de Gandia', Solanum melongena 'Casper', Solanum melongena' Thai Green', Solanum integrifolium


Watercolor on vellum

13 x 15 inches

©2020 Jean Emmons

2024 ASBA - All rights reserved

All artwork copyrighted by the artist. Copying, saving, reposting, or republishing of artwork prohibited without express permission of the artist.

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