Ever wondered what those green tomato-like fruits are in salsa? They are not green tomatoes. What gives salsa such a distinctive flavor is a close relative of the tomato, tomatillos (Tom-a-TEE-yo). Although related to tomatoes, their appearance and flavor are markedly different. Tomatillos are round fruits that are covered in a papery husk. They look like hanging lanterns while growing. As tomatillos mature, they completely fill out the husk and it splits open, revealing the plump little fruits inside.
Tomatillos are similar in appearance to cape gooseberries and ground cherries, but again, their flavors are not really comparable. Tomatillos are much tarter than these fruits, which makes them great choices for cool dishes like salsa.
The conventional green tomatillo turns either apple-green or yellow when fully ripe. The purple tomatillo, pictured here, starts off green and turns a dusky eggplant color. The purple varieties tend to be a bit less sour than the green, although both are tart.
- Leaves: Heavily serrated obovate leaves.
- Flowers: Yellow with dark splotches at the base of each of the 5 petals.
Tomatillo, Husk Tomato
Tomatillo plants are only perennial in USDA Hardiness Zones 10-11. Tomatillos are generally grown as annuals. They will reseed if left on the ground and allowed to rot. Don't be surprised to see several plants popping up in the garden, the following year.
To fruit well and remain healthy, give your tomatillo plants a spot in full sun.
Mature Plant Size
Plant size always varies with growing conditions and the specific variety being grown, but most tomatillo plants reach a size of 1 1/2 - 3 ft. (h) x 18 - 24 inches (w)
Soil: Add plenty of organic matter to the soil, before planting. Tomatillos prefer a somewhat neutral soil pH of around 6.5 - 7.0, but for the most part, they will grow anywhere there is heat, sunshine, and regular water.
Planting: Tomatillo seedlings are not always widely available, but the plants are very easy to start from seed. You can start seed outdoors after all danger of frost, or indoors, about 4 weeks before your transplant date. They germinate and grow quickly, much like tomatoes.
Tomatillos are very sensitive to cold temperatures. Wait until the ground has warmed and all danger of frost has passed, before transplanting outdoors. Give them plenty of time to harden off.
It's important to remember that you will need at least 2 tomatillo plants, for pollination and fruit production. Tomatillos are self-sterile, meaning the flowers of an individual plant cannot pollinate themselves. You will need more than one plant to get fruits.
The plants are bushy and about 2 - 3 ft. tall. They can get heavy with fruit and staking or caging is highly recommended. You can plant them fairly closely, but they are easier to harvest with at least 6 inches between plants.
Caring for Tomatillo Plants
Growing tomatillos is very much like growing tomatoes, but with fewer problems. Tomatillo plants don't seem to be plagued by all the leaf spotting diseases we expect with tomatoes, and few insects show any interest in them.
Watering is about the only real maintenance, outside of harvesting. They don't like to be left in dry conditions for extended periods of time.
Pests and Problems
Snails, slugs, and beetles may munch on the foliage, but tomatillo fruits are rarely bothered by insects or disease.
Days to Harvest
Tomatillo plants tend to grow in height and produce a lot of leaves before they start producing flowers and fruits. They do take a while to start setting fruits, but the plants will remain productive until frost. You can expect the fruits to start maturing in about 80 days.
The husks will split open, as the fruits fill out. You can harvest before splitting happens, but the fruits get sweeter as they mature.
Tomatillo fruits have a sticky film on them, which washes off easily enough. If you plan to store your tomatillos, keep them in their husks and refrigerate them. However they will only last a couple of weeks, so use them up fast.
Great Tomatillo Varieties to Grow in Your Garden
- "Cisineros" - Very large, green fruits.
- "di Milpa' - Translates to "from the field." Small wild variety.
- "Pineapple" - Small and fruity tasting.
- "Purple" - Heirloom purple variety with large, sweet fruits.
- "Toma Verde" - A traditional green variety.
- "Verde Puebla" - Large, productive green variety.
Using Your Tomatillos
Tomatillos are a traditional ingredient of Mexican salsas, especially green sauces like Salsa Verde. They are also excellent grilled just until charred and slightly softened or mixed into chili and stews.