Pumpkin-on-a-stick is an attractive and fun fruit to grow, to introduce children to gardening or enjoy in a floral arrangement. But oh, it’s so much more!
Let me confess, I have not personally grown this “Pumpkin on a stick” (yet). After reading a variety of superficial articles on the subject, by award winning authors, about how “cute” this plant is to grow for “ornamental” purposes, it put a bee in my bonnet. When I discovered the extensive usefulness of this plant, I felt a more comprehensive article would be beneficial.
First, the particulars. This plant is in the nightshade family (eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, etc.), not the cucurbit family of pumpkins, etc. It’s variously known as Ethiopian eggplant, Red China eggplant, Scarlett Chinese eggplant, and others. It was likely named “Pumpkin on a stick” to boost seed and plant sales. It is an heirloom, first recorded (I believe) in 1770. It’s grown in zones 4-10 – as an annual in cooler zones, and perennial in hotter zones.
This plant originated in tropical parts of Africa, so it prefers hot and humid climates for it to remain a perennial. It was brought to Brazil through the slave trade and numerous cultivars produced, such as the ornamental variety. It sometimes is difficult to germinate, which is the main reason it’s not cultivated more widely. It’s grown year-round, and as a principal crop, in Africa, India, and other countries.
Solanum aethiopicum (pumpkin on a stick) was domesticated from the wild Solanum anguivi Lam. There is ongoing research about the benefits of Solanum anguivi Lam., but similar benefits can be derived from the domesticated plant.
Ornamental plants can be fun to grow, especially to engage children’s interest. But when our personally owned land or community garden plots are limited, it’s often not ideal to use the space for anything other than very useful plants.
I like to grow things with multiple uses. For example, a sunflower is a beneficial, attracting insects to the garden, and it can be harvested for its seeds for humans or wildlife. But it goes beyond that. The leaves can be used as mulch, the stalks can be used as a trellis for climbing beans, the roots are great for opening up the soil for aeration.
So when it comes to this attractive and ornamental fruit, “pumpkin on a stick,” the case is no different.
Along the trail, around the time of the colonial era, information was lost about the usefulness of the plant. It is a principal crop in Africa for good reason. Not only is it a food (leaves, roots and fruit) but is also used for its medicinal properties. I imagine that since the leaves are so nutritious, they would make a great mulch if they are relatively disease-free.
The fruits are eaten raw or cooked, usually when the fruit is still green (the riper, the more bitter due to alkaloids). The fruit is often used in stew. The leaves are cooked like spinach. The fruits and leaves can be bitter to the taste, but are used in stews, soups and sauces for seasoning. The shoots can also be used as a cooked vegetable.
There has been ongoing research for the medicinal effects of the plant. From PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa), “Medicinal applications include the use of roots and fruits as a carminative [dispelling gas from flatulence] and sedative, and to treat colic and high blood pressure; leaf juice as a sedative to treat uterine complaints; an alcoholic extract of leaves as a sedative, anti-emetic [nausea or vomiting] and to treat tetanus after abortion; and crushed and macerated fruits as an enema.” In the Resource section below, there are links to studies conducted.
Companion Planting for Warding Off Disease and Pests
Ethiopian eggplant is less susceptible to disease than typical eggplant. But careful companion planting and nutrition can ward off most diseases and pests. Beneficial companion plants are amaranth, beans, peas, spinach, tarragon, thyme and Mexican marigold. Since peppers, and other plants also in the nightshade family, share the same companions, these plants do well together.
Storage and Seed Saving
This particular cultivar’s fruits can be stored for weeks or even months, which is a good reason to grow it, and why it’s used in floral arrangements. Seeds can be harvested, washed and dried and used the following growing season. Seeds can also be dried within the fruit, the traditional method of seed storage. If there are various types of eggplant in the garden, the seed may come true the following season, so careful bagging to avoid cross pollination may be necessary if you want to collect seed.
Where to Buy
There are lots of places to buy these heirloom seeds – Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds is one of my favorites. Using various terms that I’ve listed above, you can do a search at your favorite seed supplier. You can also start searching by looking up eggplant species.