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Growing Tomatillos

Growing Tomatillos From Freshly Harvested Seeds

Growing Tomatillos

The Mayan and Aztecs Indians were growing tomatillos before Columbus landed in the Caribbean. It's now a staple of Mexican cuisine. The tomatillo is sometimes known as the Mexican husk tomato, Mexican tomatoes, jamberries, or husk cherries. It is a member of the same plant family as tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant (where we use the fruits)  and potatoes (we use the tuber root) as well as the tobacco (we use the leaves). Many nightshade plants have valuable and nutritious fruits, but all of these plants bear toxins in their leaves that can be harmful. That is why the family is popularly called "deadly nightshade.

What is the tomatillo?

Superficially, the tomatillo resembles a green or unripe tomato, but a tomatillo is not a tomato. The tomatillo is smaller in size, about the size of golf ball and it stays green, never ripens red like a tomato. Most Americans don't know about Tomatillos but they are a staple of the Mexican market and have been since ancient times. The plant is native to Central America and the South Western regions of North America. It could be called the miltomate by people from Guatemala.

In the United States, most people have tasted them only if they have dined in a truly Mexican restaurant. But, since the 1950s, growers of tomatillos have begun to export them around the world. They are now enjoyed and cultivated in India, Australia, South Africa, and Kenya, as well as the United States under the name "jamberry" or "jumbo husk tomato." However, few U.S. groceries carry them. You can only find them in Mexican or Latin-American specialty grocers. There are cultivars of the tomatillo that are purple and some do ripen red. These are used largely in jams.

Tomatillos are a key ingredient in Mexican and Central-American green sauces. When you buy green salsa, they are the main ingredient (not green tomatos). They have a tart flavor that lend the special quality to true Latin-American cuisine. Many people use tomatillos in stews with green beans or pumpkin, or butternut squash. People add it to guacamole. Of course it is great in chili. A lot of people serve tomatillo along with bacon and kale in a sandwich. It is a special ingredient in some soups with chicken or pulled chicken sandwiches.

Growing tomatillos.

They are easy to grow in home gardens. Fruit can be harvested all summer until frost. Plant the seeds in well-drained soil. Tomatillos are "semi-wild" plants but they do not do well in soggy, poorly drained soil. Work a couple of inches of compost into the soil before planting the seeds and use a fork to aerate the soil well. Raised gardens work well if your native soil has a lot of clay.

Tomatillos grow much like tomatoes. The plant shoots roots along the stems so it profits from being planted deep in the garden. Space the plants at least three feet apart, because they are sizable plants. Plan on using supports like tomato cages or trellises. You will probably only need no more than 4 plants for the harvesting of fresh fruit.

Like tomatoes, tomatillo plants keep producing fruit non-stop until killed off by frost. You should keep up the quality of the soil by supplying 2 to 3 inches of organic mulch (like grass clippings) to suppress weeds and keep the moisture in. These Mexican plants are pretty drought tolerant, but they do best with an inch or so of water per week. You will not need fertilizer.

The plants themselves.

The plant is typically about 3 feet high, but it can be compact upright or spread out close to the ground. The leaves are usually serrated (but not always). The plant flowers into white, light green, bright yellow, or purple blossoms. The isolated plant rarely develops fruit. You will need at least two for proper fertilization if you want fruit.

When ripe the tomatillo fruit hangs on the plant like green lanterns. The tomatillo first appears encased in an inedible glossy-like husk. As the fruit matures it will fill the husk and eventually break through like a chick breaking out of its eggshell. When that happens they are ready to harvest.

Nutrition from the fruit:

A one-quarter pound serving of tomatillos contains about 36 calories, about the same as a medium tomato. They do have more total fat content than a tomato, around one gram of total fat, compared to zero grams for the tomato. There is a gram of sodium, seven grams of carbohydrates, four grams of sugar, and a gram of vegetable protein. All these values are very close to what a tomato adds to the diet.


How to store and prepare the fruit.

The husks should remain on the fruit until it is ready to eat. They keep with husks on for a few days on the counter. They stay in the refrigerator for two weeks or so (longer if sealed in a plastic bag with husks removed). To prepare them, remove the inedible husks. Wash the fruit which will be quite sticky. The entire fruit is edible including the skins and tiny seeds inside.

Some people like tomatillos raw, others cooked. The raw fruit is softer than an apple, firmer than a tomato. It is wet but not juicy. The taste of the raw fruit can be slightly sweet, but it turns pleasantly sour when cooked. Some people say the taste of the cooked tomatillo hints of lemon or pineapple.


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