707 Physalis ixocarpaCommon Names: tomatillo, Mexican husk tomato, green tomato, jam berry, Mexican ground cherry, tomate verde Family: Solanaceae (nightshade Family)
The tomatillo is a close relative of the tomato. The plant is an annual with a much-branched, spreading form, and a rank, weedy looking appearance. It gets 3-6 ft (0.9-1.8 m) tall and falls over and sprawls on the ground if not given support. The flowers are yellow with purple markings and yield to the tomatillo fruit which is technically a berry, as is the tomato fruit. The fruit develops inside a green and purple bladder-like calyx that looks like a small Chinese lantern hanging from the stem. Extracted from its papery husk, an unripe tomatillo is slightly sticky on the surface, and looks much like a small green tomato, 1-3 in (2.5-7.6 cm) in diameter; but the tomatillo has a drier texture and a distinctive flavor. Most tomatillos are slightly sour and sweet at the same time. They have a sharp, mildly tart, but altogether pleasant flavor. When the fruit is fully ripe, it is lime-green, yellow, or purple, and completely fills the papery husk, which withers and dries, turns brown, and splits open. Ripe fruits are considerably sweeter than unripe ones.
'Golden Nugget' has yellow fruits when ripe; 'Cisneros' produces a very large fruit, to 3 in (7.6 cm) in diameter; 'Purple' has a fruit that is sharper and preferred by some cooks for salsa verde.
P. philadelphica is a closely related species sometimes called wild tomatillo or miltomate, that is preferred by some cooks and favored south of Mexico in Central America. The cultivar 'Purple de Milpa' has a sweet and sharp flavor and is considered by many to be the best-flavored tomatillo. These are excellent eaten out of hand, right off the vine, and they seem to store better than other tomatillos, too.
The tomatillo, Physalis ixocarpa, is native to Mexico and Central America and is cultivated throughout the region. They also are cultivated in India, Australia and South Africa as well as in the southern US. Tomatillos, especially the wild tomatillo (P. philadelphica), have naturalized in some areas outside their native range, including southern California.
CultureTomatillos are grown just like tomatoes. They take 50-70 days to produce green fruits, and ripe tomatillos can be harvested a couple weeks later. Light: Full sun to light shade. Moisture: Regular garden watering, as for tomatoes and other vegetables. Hardiness: USDA Zones 4 - 11. Tomatillos are frost-tender annuals that can be grown in most zones. They are usually started indoors, like tomatoes, 6-8 weeks before the last expected frost. Propagation: Tomatillos are grown from seed. It's easy to save your own tomatillo seeds. Pulverize the fruits in a blender or food processor with enough water to cover them. (This will not harm the small, slippery seeds.) Pour the mixture into a bowl, add some more water and stir well. The good seeds will settle to the bottom, and the immature seeds and debris will float and can be poured off the top. Repeat as necessary. Collect the good seeds by pouring the clean water through a strainer and then dry them on a ceramic or glass plate. They should remain viable for several years if kept in an airtight container and stored in a cool, dry place such as the refrigerator.
Americans don't use tomatillos much, but south of the border tomatillos are an important ingredient in salsas. The unripe fruits are a principal component of salsa verde, a mildly hot sauce served with tacos, enchiladas and chile rellenos. Tomatillos also are stewed, fried and baked. The ripe fruits are sweet and eaten out of hand and used in salads, preserves, and guacamole. Tomatillos are sometimes strung in garlands, like chili pepper ristras.
Here in my North Florida vegetable garden, I grow 'Green', 'Cisneros', and 'Purple de Milpa' tomatillos. I grow them in cages made from concrete reinforcing wire (looks like fencing), just like my tomatoes. Some years they produce extremely well and some years I don't get any tomatillos at all. Who knows?
The related Chinese lantern (P. alkekengi) is grown for the attractive husks that are used in dried arrangements.
Steve Christman 6/10/00; updated 4/28/03, 9/8/03