Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Plant Spotlight: Tomatillos, Verde and Purple types!

I've talked briefly on tomatillos in the past, but haven't given them enough verbiage on this blog and my excitement on growing them this year.

In my effort to find relatively easy, pest free things to grow that can hold for a good while without refrigeration, I came upon tomatillos.  The fact that they sound like "tomatoes" helps too, because just about anything that sounds like/reminds me of a tomato seems to be delicious.

My first encounter with tomatillos was at an amazing international mart in my hometown over last Thanksgiving.  I had seen and heard of tomatillos before as I am an authentic cookbook freak and there are a good number of Mexican recipes that cite tomatillos as an ingredient.  The fruit itself is very eye catching: papery yellowing husk with a slight stickiness to it and a globular lime green firm fruit popping out from the husk.  I didn't want to eat the fruit when I was away from home because I wanted to save the seeds properly and was afraid I'd lose them if I attempted tomatillo seed saving away from home, so I brought the fruits back  and after a few weeks, and noticing with glee that they held very well at room and refrigerator temperature, I finally cut into them.

I had actually had never had a tomatillo before then and so I was very surprised by the flavor.  It was an intense, green apple flavor with citrus-y tones and other ineffable notes that I can't describe.  I was impressed, and my husband was too, and when gets impressed by a fruit/vegetable, I take note because he's quite a bit pickier than me about these things.

The seeds can be saved very easily, just like regular tomato seeds via the fermentation method, though I suspect they could also just be washed and dried for later use.  My experience also seems to indicate that the seeds are very vigorous and I've had no troubles with germination.

Tomatillos, also known as Mexican husk tomato, or to get Latin-y: Physalis philadephica, are of the Solanaceae family, where tomatoes, peppers and eggplant are also members of.  Closer relatives to tomatillos include: Love-in-a-cage, aka Chinese lantern plants, gooseberries and ground cherries; all of which are edible and can be eaten fresh or made into jams/jellies.

The green varieties of tomatillos tend to be larger and tarter with the purple variety, which I have not personally tried, but hope to this summer, is supposed to be smaller but sweeter and hold longer and are also less sticky than the green kind.  The green and purple variety both produce about the same amount of total fruit in volume per plant, with fewer individual green fruits as they are larger, but more purple fruits as they're smaller.

There are few pests that affect tomatillos, though I did encounter tobacco/tomato hornworms on some seedlings recently, I have noticed very little damage on my older plants that are in the garden ground other than maybe some flea beetle nibbles.

I've read that the soil should be rich where you decide to grow tomatillos, but as they are like weeds in Mexico I've heard and if they are like the tomato plants from my compost bin, they'll be forgiving of the soil I'm sure.

Tomatillo vines like tomatoes can be stakes or allowed to roam, though obviously you'll get more clean fruit when staked.  The leaves are like a mix of tomato and pepper leaves, though rangier in my opinion.  Mine have still yet to show flower, but from pictures they appear to look like tomatoes for the most part with some darkness in the center.

Once the flowers are pollinated and the fruit begins, the fun too begins!  The fruit swells and is covered by the calyces of the flower, which will form the husk.  The husk covers the fruit and when it's time to harvest, like a turkey with those red pop up things, the fruit breaks the husk to indicate ripeness!  How much easier can it get?!

Harvest as often as possible because like other fruits/vegetables, production goes down if you don't harvest.  Storage is simple, refrigeration with husks on or off, though I've heard they last longer with the husks off.  I've also read that single layers in a cool dark location allow tomatillos to store just fine for months.  In addition, like some tomato tales I've heard, natives in Central/South America will just store entire yanked up plants with fruits on them hanging  upside-down in a room just fine.

Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply sells both verde and purple tomatillo seeds and if you need other seeds anyways, they do have a current special of 2 free organic vegetable seed packets with every order from now until the end of the year, so take advantage if you already need seeds and want to try a new vegetable or variety! (<-- not affiliated btw, just like their free seed thing).

Many pardons for the lack of pics on my behalf.  It's my first year growing growing them, and there hasn't been much activity or flowering, so it's a boring plant to look at now.  Please follow the links provided if you wish for more pics or interesting uses for tomatillos:


Nina said...

Tomatillo salsa = yum! I make it pretty much every year and bring it to work, where people devour it.

Sylvana said...

You know, I think I had some of tomatillo relatives growing in my garden. I just looked them up: prairie ground cherry. I didn't know the fruit was edible, although I did suspect that they were a nightshade due to the sticky leaves. They were pretty hardy plants though, so I think I might be able to still find one or two and see what happens.

persephone said...

@Nina: Share recipe with me!

@Sylvana: I looked it up too just to make sure for you (I'm paranoid and don't want to kill anyone) but it does seem to be a native food for Indians (Native Americans, whatever) in the past. Do make sure that they are ripe because unripe things can be problematic aka toxic.