For years I tried to grow eggplant with little to no success. I’ve always been good at growing things, my thumb is green! Eggplants eluded me, but like any stubborn farmer, I didn’t give up too easily.
I expressed my eggplant growing woes to my friend Ann Kobsa and she would give me eggplants and I happily accepted. At least if I couldn’t grow them, someone else could, and she was nice enough to share.
She mentioned that she grows eggplant trees and she’s had some for over 10 years. This was the solution to my current eggplant dilemma because I could have abundant eggplants and I didn’t have to plant new ones constantly.
What exactly is an eggplant tree? It is grafted edible eggplants to a rootstock of a closely related, but less food-worthy solanaceous plant. Ann uses one called solanum torvum or turkey berry.
Eggplants can be considered perennial but they tend to die off because of microscopic pests in the soil called nematodes. So this was why I couldn’t grow them! The solanum torvum has a hardier root system and can flourish in less than perfect conditions. You can either plant turkey berry from its numerous seedy fruits or cut off a branch and place it in a pot or your garden and it will root. It can grow in wet and dry environments and may be considered invasive. It pops up here and there on my land but I usually just turn it into an eggplant tree.
I’ve heard you can use the fuzzy naranjilla or “little orange” as an alternate rootstock. When I first moved to Hawaii, my neighbor Linda gave me a naranjilla and I planted it in my garden expecting eggplant. When it grew for some time and no eggplant emerged, I ripped it out and tossed it in the bushes. It’s been happily growing there ever since. It produces little orange fruits with spiky hair that you must rub off before opening. Inside the fleshy pulp tastes like a tart, yet sweet tomatillo. I haven’t tried this as a rootstock, I’m quite happy with the turkey berry.
Ann gave me some cuttings from the turkey berry and I planted them in one gallon pots. Once they were established she came over and showed me how to do a soft wood graft. We used the veneer grafting technique which I’ve used on durian before, a hard wood fruit tree. With the veneer graft you just cut and peel a small strip of bark, leaving the flap attached, exposing the cambium layer of the rootstock. Then cut a small section off the eggplant stem or scion exposing the cambium layer and then match up to the cambium layer of the root stock. Wrap with regular green nursery tape to hold the two together and then wrap the entire graft plus scion with grafting tape to hold in moisture and wait a few weeks. If the graft takes you will know it because the scion will be alive and growing new leaves. Learn more on my blog, “How to Graft an Eggplant.” Also, solanum torvum rootstock seeds are available for purchase in our store.
As it grows, be mindful of the weight of the new emerging fruit and branches. You may have to cull the first flowers just to make sure your graft is strong enough to support the fruits. Also, pinch off any growth from the root stock. We grafted mostly Japanese varieties, which are the long skinny type, onto to the turkey berry root stock. She supplied me with long white, purple and variegated varieties of eggplant. I’m not sure if the Italian or bigger bodied eggplant would work because of their weight but it is something that I’m going to try this summer.
My tree grew at least six feet tall and produced a variety of lovely edible eggplants. It has been growing nicely and producing year-round fruits for at least three years now. I just have to be mindful to cut off the ripening fruit and check for any root stock water sprouts and cut them off. The turkey berry has pokey rose-bush-shaped thorns so you’ll know it if you get a wayward root stock branch. Also, the flowers are small, white and tightly clustered.
It’s nice to have eggplant year round in Hawaii and be able to harvest it when I want. I also don’t have to plant it each summer with not-so-good results.
We use eggplant in many food dishes either alone or combined with other ingredients. One of my favorite ways, is grilled eggplant.
Cut the eggplant long ways (not into discs) brush with olive oil, salt and pepper it, then grill it on both sides. You can eat it just like this or layer it with tomato sauce and cheese to make an eggplant lasagne. Add it to regular spaghetti sauce by slicing into discs and letting it cook in the sauce. It also goes great in stir fry dishes, browned with coconut oil or breaded long-ways and fried.
No worries, with an eggplant tree you’ll have plenty of eggplant to go around. Not only will a tree produce more fruit, they’ll stay off the ground away from nibbling slugs.