Bartlett on Gardening: Kissing Cousins

Tomatoes must be the most popular crop in the country among home gardeners. We grow them in pots and plots. We eat them in salads and sandwiches. Some folks preserve them to use all year. When the harvest is bountiful, we share them with friends and coworkers. Unlike zucchini, tomatoes are always welcome. A vine-ripened summer tomato has no equal in flavor.

Called tomatl by the Aztecs, tomatoes are a New World crop. The Spanish brought tomatoes to Europe in the early 1500s. The tomato quickly spread to Italy and southern France, where it was used as a decorative vine. Only in Spain and Italy were tomatoes eaten raw. Elsewhere it was believed that they had to be thoroughly cooked. In fact, potassium-rich tomatoes have only been a summer sensation for about a century.

There was a certain stigma attached to membership in the Solanaceae, or deadly nightshade, family.

The culinary chart topper of the 16th century was tomato’s cousin in that family, the pepper. Columbus brought peppers to Spain in 1493 where their flavor, whether sweet or fiery, was most welcome. The Portuguese introduced them into India. There as in southern Europe the flavorful peppers were immediately embraced.

Chili is the most popular spice on the planet. The heat is determined by the amount of capsaicin in the fruit. Capsaicin is most concentrated in the seeds, so you may need to wear gloves while preparing them. Chilis are an excellent source of vitamins A and C. There is research suggesting that capsaicin may have many health benefits.

Ornamental peppers are also edible. They usually are very hot. It is believed that they look more like “wild” peppers. Those we grow in the garden have fruit which hang below the leaves offering some protection from birds. The showy upright fruit of the ornamentals begs for something to swoop down and eat it, all the better to spread the seeds.

A third member of this plant family is the eggplant. Called aubergine everywhere else, eggplants have been around southern Asia for millennia. The Moors brought them to Spain, but they were not popular farther north. In fact, until recently, the vegetable was regarded as a curiosity.

Eggplant is a good source of some B vitamins as well as vitamin C. The skin is more nutrient rich than the flesh. Recipes often call for salting the cut vegetable to reduce the amount of water in it. Not wanting to consume the extra sodium, I have found that roasting or grilling sliced eggplant achieves the same end.

You may ask how these vegetables as well as potatoes can possibly be in the same family. Our botanist buddy, Linnaeus, based much of his

system of classification on the plant’s flowers. As you can see in the above photos, the flowers do share a resemblance. Backyard farmers need to think of these as a

group when planning for crop rotation.

Master gardener Ann Bartlett is crazy about flowers of all kinds, including those of the Solanaceae family. Pictured above are, in order, tomato, eggplant and potato.

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