Marco Schmidt, Wikimedia Commons Contributor
Plant Common Name
African Eggplant, Scarlet Eggplant
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The scarlet eggplant, sometimes colloquially called "pumpkins on a stick," resembles an eggplant but with small, colorful, gourd-like fruits. This tender perennial is native to tropical, sub-Saharan Africa. Scarlet eggplant is highly variable across its native range, as some plants have prickly leaves, while others produce fruit that are either round, tear drop-shaped or flattened and grooved. Horticulturists place these different strains into one of four groups: Gilo, Kumba, Shum or Aculeatum. In Africa, people eat the leaves as a vegetable and the cooked immature fruits. Scarlet eggplant's food use is highest in equatorial African nations. It's mainly grown as an ornamental bedding plant outside of Africa, especially in China.
Scarlet eggplant is a herbaceous, semi-woody subshrub, but it may be grown as a perennial or annual crop. Its large pointy leaves with short pointed side lobes look like those of an eggplant or oak. The leaf blades may or may not have spines, and are a medium to light green with bluish cast. The bushy plant becomes open in habit with many branches. It doesn't require staking. The white to purplish, five-petaled flowers occur during warm weather. After insect pollination, fruits form. They are at first green and then then enlarge and transition to yellow-orange, orange and finally some shade of ripe red. Depending on plant genetics, a scarlet eggplant's fruits may be perfectly round, globose or a flattened sphere or short cylinder. Lots of seeds are in the flesh.
Grow scarlet eggplant in full sun in a fertile, moist but well-drained soil. Frost, soggy soil and excessive drought kill the plants. Grow this species in like manner as tomatoes or eggplants, starting seeds indoors and then transplanting into the garden once soil warms and no frosts occur. In tropical, frost-free regions, scarlet eggplant often fruits better in the warm dry season, as high humidity and copious rains can undermine plant vigor and health. However, plants in the Gilo or Shum groups are much better in humid tropical climates. Those in the Kumba group excel in warm, more arid regions.
Use scarlet eggplant as a curious but pretty addition to a flower bed or vegetable garden. Cut fruit-bearing branches to use in autumn vase bouquets. Or, if you choose to eat the leaves, boil or wilt them to remove the bitter toxins. Only eat immature fruits, ideally cooked in stews or soups. Mature fruits taste much more bitter and contain more toxins typical of members of the nightshade family. But, taste and bitterness of fruits varies a lot among the numerous plants in the four horticultural groups. A few cultivars - such as 'Striped Togo' - have been selected specifically for their better fruit flavors or ornamental beauty.