A few weeks ago a friend gave me a gift. It appeared to be clusters of plastic mini-pumpkins, and I shuddered inwardly, since plastic plants are an affront to all that is natural and wholesome in this world. Plus, they get dusty.
Close examination revealed that they were not plastic at all. Every one was real. Tiny, almost unnaturally shiny orange, yellow and green “pumpkins” dangled from fibrous green stems. Whimsical and weird at the same time.
This I had not seen before. So I asked The Great Oz (Google), “What manner of plant is this?” and it replied: Solanum aethiopicum (also known as S. integrifolium). It’s an eggplant, an annual native to Southeast Asia. Common name: pumpkin on a stick.
The name brings up images of those deep-fried novelty foods sold at state fairs across the country. It’s also called Red China or Scarlet Chinese Eggplant. And pumpkin on a stick is indeed edible, but apparently not too tasty (all reports say it’s bitter). Even so, this eggplant relative is used in some Asian cuisine, but in this part of the world it’s not grown as an edible, but for its usefulness as an autumnal decoration.
This year, look for it at florist’s shops to decorate your fireplace mantel or Thanksgiving table. Next year, why not grow it? Start seeds indoors six weeks before your last frost date (give it 10 to 20 days to germinate) and plant outdoors after the chance of frost has past and soil temperature is 70 degrees F. Give S. aethiopicum full sun, rich soil, and space transplants about 3 feet apart. Plants get to be about 3 feet tall — staking is advised — with big, green, eggplant-looking leaves. Stems are studded with large thorns. Fertilize regularly. Harvest in about 75 days, when the fruits have reached a deep orange color.
Pumpkin on a stick is a real conversation piece, whether growing in the garden, in a (huge) pot, or as part of a fall arrangement.