Ever wondered what those green tomato-like fruits are in salsa? What gives salsa such a distinctive flavor are not green tomatoes, but a close relative of the tomato, tomatillos (Physalis ixocarpa). Although tomatillos are related to tomatoes, their appearance and flavor are markedly different.
Tomatillos have heavily serrated obovate leaves, with five-petaled yellow flowers with dark splotches at the base. The round fruits are covered in a papery husk and look like hanging lanterns while growing. As tomatillos mature, they completely fill out the husk and it splits open to reveal the plump little fruits inside. The conventional green tomatillo turns either apple-green or yellow when fully ripe. The purple tomatillo starts green, then turns a dusky eggplant color. The purple varieties tend to be a bit less sour than the green, although both are tart.
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 dishes such as salsa.
Tomatillos are generally planted from seed in the spring after all danger of frost has passed. In colder climates, the seeds are often started indoors, four to eight weeks before outdoor planting time. Seed germination to mature fruit usually takes 75 to 100 days for most varieties.
|Botanical Name||Physalis ixocarpa|
|Common Name||Tomatillo, husk tomato|
|Plant Type||Perennial vegetable; usually grown as an annual|
|Size||18 to 36 in. tall; 18- to 24-inch spread|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun|
|Soil Type||Rich, well-drained|
|Soil pH||Slightly acidic to neutral (6.5–7.0)|
|Hardiness Zones||8–10 (USDA); grown as annuals in all zones|
|Toxicity||Leaves, stems, and husks are toxic|
How to Plant Tomatillos
Tomatillo nursery 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, four to eight weeks before your outdoor planting date. It's important to remember that you will need at least two tomatillo plants to ensure 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.
Tomatillos are very sensitive to cold temperatures. Wait until the ground has warmed and all danger of frost has passed before transplanting outdoors. Give seedlings plenty of time to harden off before planting; nighttime temperatures should be 55 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. Like tomatoes, tomatillos produce roots all along the stem, so the seedlings should be planted deeply.
The plants are bushy and about 2 to 3 feet tall. They can get heavy with fruit and staking or caging is highly recommended. Harvesting is easier with at least 3 to 4 feet between plants.
Tomatillos are largely trouble-free, provided you provide enough air circulation to prevent fungal diseases. Snails, slugs, and beetles may be rare problems
To fruit well and remain healthy, give your tomatillo plants a spot in full sun.
Add plenty of organic matter to the soil before planting. Tomatillos prefer a well-drained, somewhat neutral soil pH of around 6.5 to 7.0, but for the most part, they will grow anywhere there is heat, sunshine, and regular water.
Tomatillos are fairly drought-tolerant but thrive best with about 1 inch of water per week.
Temperature and Humidity
Tomatillos thrive in climates with hot summers. Humidity levels are generally not a factor.
There is no need to fertilize tomatillos. However, even though tomatillos are lighter feeders than tomatoes, it's a good idea to work in some compost to the soil before planting.
- 'Cisineros' produces very large, green fruits.
- 'di Milpa' is a small wild variety. The name translates as "from the field."
- 'Pineapple has small, sweet-tasting fruits.
- 'Purple" is an heirloom variety with large, sweet fruits.
- 'Toma Verde' is a traditional green variety.
- 'Verde Puebla' is a large productive green variety.
Tomatillo plants tend to grow in height and produce a lot of leaves before they start producing flowers and fruits. You can expect the fruits to start maturing in 75 to 100 days. Once they do start setting fruits, the plants will remain productive until frost. Watch for the moment when the husks begin to 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.
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.
Are Tomatillos Toxic?
Tomatillos are members of the nightshade family, and the leaves, stems, and husks contain the same alkaloid compounds that make the leaves of those other species toxic. People or animals consuming leaves and stems may potentially suffer severe digestive problems or even heart issues. However, it requires eating a large quantity of these bitter, unpalatable plant parts to suffer severe problems, so accidental poisoning is rare.
Tomatillos can be propagated from seeds saved from the pulp of the fruit. Soaking the squeezed-out pulp in water makes it easier to separate the seeds, which will sink to the bottom. Dry the seeds on paper towels and save for spring planting time. Tomatillos sometimes self-seed in the garden when fruits fall to the soil and are left to rot. These volunteer seedlings can be carefully transplanted elsewhere in the garden.
Tomatillos are also fairly easy to propagate from stem cuttings.
Growing Tomatillos. Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service
Growing Tomatillos and Ground Cherries In Home Gardens. University of Minnesota Extension
Iannotti, Marie. The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Northeast. Timber Press, 2014.