Next time you’re at the supermarket, pick up a tomatillo (toe-mah-TEE-yo). Sniff: It smells like a spicy apple. Feel: It’s got a pretty, papery husk that’s most likely split but attached at the top, like a cloak. The satiny, plump, round fruit peeking through the husk is just right for cooking if it’s clear light green. Taste: Take a few tomatillos home and use them in your favorite salsa or guacamole, or roast them with garlic to use in green chile.
Tomatillos are not little tomatoes—they’re a different fruit altogether, and a staple in Mexican and Central American cooking. They’re also easy to add to your vegetable garden. They’re tolerant of a little bit of shade and a lot of heat; you might find they’re even easier to grow than tomatoes.
Common name: Tomatillo, ground cherry
Botanical name: Physalis philadelphica (also P. ixocarpa)
Plant type: Typically grown as annual
Height: 2½ to 5 feet
• Sun: Full sun to part shade
• Soil: Average, well-drained
• Moisture: Medium
• Mulch: Mulch to preserve moisture and prevent weeds.
• Pruning: None needed.
• Fertilizer: Add an inch of compost or some liquid fertilizer once or twice in a season.
• By seed
Pests and diseases
• Caterpillars may cause some damage.
• Vulnerable to rust and leaf spot.
• Grow tomatillos as you would tomatoes. Cages help contain these bushy, spreading plants.
• Most tomatillos for the garden are not self-fertile, so plant at least two plants.
• Use tomatillos in salsas, curries, stews, or sauces.
• Harvest tomatillos when the papery husks start to split. If you’re growing a variety with green fruit, be sure to harvest while they’re still bright green. Once they turn yellow, they’re past their prime.
• Like many other members of the nightshade family, the tomatillo has poisonous leaves and stems. The only part of the plant that’s edible is the fruit.
• ‘Toma Verde’: light green fruits; a very common variety.
• ‘Purple De Milpa’: deep purple fruits.
• ‘Cisineros’: very large, apple green fruits.
All in the family
• Tomatillos are in the same family as tomatoes (Solanaceae), but they’re in a different genus. The two fruits share many characteristics, and it’s believed that they were both domesticated in Central America during pre-Columbian times.
• The word “tomato” comes from the Nahuatl word “tomatl.” Nahuatl was the language of the Aztecs.
• Other members of the Solanaceae family include edible plants—pepper, potato, and eggplant—and popular garden flowers like brugmansia, datura, and petunia. The family also contains Nicotiana, the genus that contains cultivated tobacco plants as well as annual species grown for their fragrant flowers.
(Text by Elizabeth Noll, photo of ‘Toma Verde’ tomatillo courtesy of Tomato Growers Supply Co.)