I never thought I would be growing tomatillos. Admittedly, it’s not an everyday kind of crop. Yet, because they’re great in guacamole and in salsa, both favorites of mine, I decided to try growing them. I planted them from seed end of January, along with my tomatoes and peppers; but, unfortunately, they didn’t survive the transplanting process. However, my local Lowes had tomatillo plants for sale, so I bought two and put them into one of my tomato beds. I am so glad I did. They are a beautiful plant with fruit that is awesome to watch grow.
The tomatillo, or Physalis ixocarpa, is a member of the nightshade family, along with its cousin the tomato, peppers, eggplant, and potatoes. Related to the cape gooseberry, the tomatillo is a green (or red or yellow or purple) fruit with a paper-like husk. The green variety, an essential ingredient in salsas, is firm and slightly tart. The purple and red cultivars are a little sweeter and are used in jams and preserves. (Tomatillos are high in pectin, an ingredient used to thicken jams and preserves.)
The tomatillo originated in Mexico and was domesticated by the Aztecs by 800 BCE. Its original name is tomate; in Nahuatl, it’s tomatl, which means “fat water” or “fat thing.” Eventually, the Aztecs began to cultivate a similar fruit of a different genus called jitomate (“fat water with navel” or “fat thing with navel”). It was bigger than the tomatl (or tomatillo) and turned red when ripe. Yes, you guessed it – it was what we call a tomato today. The Spanish explorers took the tomato to Europe and called it tomate. However, in Mexico, tomatillos are called tomate.
Although related to the tomato, the tomatillo has no lycopene, the heart-healthy phytochemical tomatoes are known for. They do have other phytochemicals that have antibacterial and anti-cancer properties, and have more minerals per weight than tomatoes. Tomatillos also contain zeaxanthin and lutein, both necessary for eye health.
Based on the recommended daily values, three tomatillos (about 100 grams) contain the following amounts of these vitamins: 20% vitamin C, 11% niacin, 8% vitamin K, 4% vitamin A. (Although, those are not the only vitamins tomatillos contain.) And look at the high amounts of minerals: 10% copper, 8% iron, 6% each manganese and potassium, and 5% each magnesium and phosphorus. The nutrition alone is reason enough to put a couple of these plants in your garden!
Tomatillos are an annual in North America and can be planted in Zones 5-11. They are heat-loving plants that do well in full sun with well-drained, moderately rich soil with a pH of 6.5-7.0. Unlike tomatoes, which are self-pollinating, tomatillos need at least two plants within a few feet of each other in order to fruit. So plan to plant at least two.
Because many nurseries and garden centers do not sell tomatillo plants, you may have to grow them from seed. Start them indoors six to eight weeks before last frost, just as you would tomatoes and peppers. Harden them off and transplant them outside when it’s safe to transplant tomatoes in your area.
Tomatillos are like tomatoes in that they grow roots from their stems, so plant them deeply for a good root system. Because they are indeterminate (like most tomatoes), plant them about three feet apart and stake or cage them. They grow a little differently than tomatoes; to me, they seem to combine the branches of a tomato with a vine-like quality. Very intriguing. But staking or caging is a must because the branches will grow everywhere! (I’ve read that you can pinch off the growing tips to control the spread, if needed.)
Once transplanted, mulch with two to three inches of organic mulch (grass clippings or straw) to retain moisture. Although they are a little more drought-tolerant than tomatoes, they still need 1 – 1.5 inches of rain per week to grow their best. Don’t forget to weed regularly because they don’t compete well with weeds. And, be sure they get good air circulation, like tomatoes, so they won’t develop a fungus.
As long as you have at least two tomatillo plants, fruit will appear and be ready to harvest within 75-100 days post transplanting. I’m about at the 75 day mark, and I have a handful of fruit that are the size of the one in the picture above. It seems it took a while for the bees to find them! But I have dozens of babies coming!
Harvest the tomatillo when the fruit fills the husk and the husk just starts to split. If the fruit feels like a marble, it’s too soon. If the fruit turns pale yellow, it’s too ripe and will be seedier and will have lost its tang.
Store tomatillos in the husk at room temperature for up to a week or in the refrigerator for up to three weeks. You can also remove the husks, wash and dry, and store in the freezer in freezer bags.
Be sure to harvest all your tomatillos at the end of the season because they will self-seed (unless, that’s what you want). Before the first frost, you can pull the plant and hang it upside down in an unheated garage where the fruits will keep a couple of months.
FROM GARDEN TO KITCHEN:
I use tomatillos in my guacamole, and they give it an additional tartness. I also plan to make my own salsa. But how else can you prepare tomatillos? I was surprised by several yummy looking recipes I found.
A tomatillo is probably an unusual fruit for most Americans, but I think it’s one we should eat – and grow – more often.
Are you growing tomatillos? Do you have any great tomatillo recipes? Please share!