What’s a Tomatillo?

June 8, 2007

Despite the similarities in habit and appearance to the popular tomato vine, you won’t find tomatillos growing in too many backyard vegetable gardens.

This unusual plant is rare in the home garden, but the fruits are popular in salsas and many other ethnic recipes.

husk tomato 300x225 Whats a Tomatillo?Tomatillos are also known as Toma Verde or husk tomatoes. The name husk tomato refers to the papery shell that covers the small cherry tomato sized fruit and splits open as the tomatillos mature and ripen.

With a quick glance a tomatillo plant could easily be mistaken for a tomato vine. There are several different varieties including; Purple de Milpa, Green Husk Tomatillo, Dr. Wych’s Yellow, Verde, and the Purple Tomatillo. The purple tomatillo fruits are ornamental and slightly sweeter in flavor.

Growing Tomatillos in the Garden

Tomatillos are raised in the same manner as you would grow tomatoes. At least I think they are… my one attempt at growing tomatillos a couple of years ago was not exactly a success. The plants grew well and looked healthy but for some reason failed to produce a single fruit.

The strange thing was that the plants did have flowers and small papery husks, but no tomatillos. If I had to speculate on a reason for the failure to bear fruit I would assume that the soil was too high in nitrogen; encouraging vegetative growth rather than fruit production.

tomatillo plant 300x225 Whats a Tomatillo?A gardener in St. Catherine’s, which I believe is in Canada, commented as follows on her own interest in growing this plant: “Has anyone had any luck with the tomatillos variety this far north? Salsa is big in my family and we would like to have a crack at this authentic Mexicasa treat.”

Her question was proposed to subscribers of the Gardening Secrets Newsletter and several readers weighed in with their own experiences on the matter of growing tomatillos:

Gardener’s Tomatillo Growing Successes

“I live in Montana, I planted Tomatillos about 4 years ago and they have come up every year since voluntarily. I gave away bags full last year. So the answer from me is yes, they grow in the North. Keep Growing!” – Lola Friedhoff

“Ground Cherry, Husk Tomato, or Tomatillo plants should do well anywhere tomatoes grow. I’ve had luck with all of the species with the exception of one year when nothing seemed to grow. Good luck and keep trying.” – Jeanne

“I grew Tomatillos several years ago, green (variety), without any problems. Planted them just like regular tomatoes. They went wild and I ended up with more tomatillos then I knew what to do with. I used a hand posthole digger to dig my holes, then filled the hole with leaf mold compost, then planted the tomatillo plants.” – Jim Davis

Tomatillos are Worth a Try

tomatillos 300x225 Whats a Tomatillo?For Northern gardeners it appears that if you can raise tomatoes in your garden, you should also be able to grow and harvest a crop of tomatillos. Start the seed indoors and transplant them out into the garden using the same techniques and timing as with your tomato transplants.

You can also use a layer of plastic mulch to raise soil temperatures in the tomatillo bed throughout the growing season. If your season is extremely short select a variety such as the Purple Tomatillo that has a shorter time to maturity and is listed at 60 – 90 days.

So for those of us that have yet to harvest a ripe tomatillo, it sounds like there’s still hope and that it would be worth the effort. It’s probably too late for me to plant tomatillo seeds this season, but I think they will be on my list of additions to next year’s garden.

This post has been submitted as part of the Weekend Herb Blogging Project for the week of June 10, 2007. If there are other tomatillo experiences, recipe ideas, or tips for growing tomatillos in the home garden, feel free to chime in.





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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Jean Kountz June 9, 2007 at 8:14 pm

Kenny,

My husband (who buys just about any interesting seed packet he sees) planted tomatillos in the most inhospitable corner of our West Chester garden 3 years ago. Now we have tomatillos that self-seed and bear from July through October/November each year. We use them in salsa, as thickeners in soups, and even raw on vegetable trays (they taste like mild green apples when raw). Their husks seem to protect them from frost and spoiling once picked. I don’t know why they flourish here, but they seem to love Chester County.

Ulrike June 10, 2007 at 11:23 am

I don’t think, that they will grow in Northern Germany. Thanks for joining WHB

Joe Mikitish June 11, 2007 at 12:12 am

Here in SW Idaho (desert region) I tend to transplant (they come up volunteer) them along the edges of the garden where the sprinklers and soaker hoses don’t hit). Also, cutting them back after they bloom will send them into a production frenzy. It is worth noting that tomatillos are just like weeds in that they grow well where your average dandelion or thistle would flourish.

Kalyn June 11, 2007 at 9:08 am

I have grown tomatillos successfully here in Salt Lake, although I don’t have any growing right now. I’m intrigued by the mention of the purple tomatillo and will try to remember that for next year! I do love the flavor, and think they’re especially good in salsa, soups, and stews.

Daria June 26, 2007 at 3:44 pm

Those empty husks will fill up eventually – I live in Maine and had to wait until almost frost for them to fill out last year. I canned about 6 jars of green salsa – yum!

Laura July 13, 2007 at 1:21 pm

Question: Do you cage them (tomatillos) as you would a tomato, or let them grow as they wish? Thanks.

Kenny Point July 13, 2007 at 2:48 pm

Laura, I would cage tomatillos just like a tomato plant.

deejay July 25, 2007 at 5:53 pm

This is my first time growing tomatillos. Just picked my first 4 of them about 5 min ago.
I was looking for a recipe to use them in that wasn’t salsa, they grew way to easy.

Sharon Borglin July 2, 2008 at 7:23 pm

I found this on a website, does anyone know if it is true?

“Tomatillo plants are not self-pollinating; at least two plants are needed for both to produce fruit (each plant yields about 60 to 100 tomatillos per season). “

Marcella August 23, 2008 at 11:08 am

You do need more than one plant to get tomatillos to bear fruit. I live in Zone 5, and have tomatillos going absolutely wild in my garden.

Kathy August 12, 2009 at 7:42 pm

I have 2 tomatillo plants growing. One is sprawling real wide and the other plant is over 5 feet. Lots o fruit on them so I will wait to see what happens. This is the first time growing them. They were on clearance and didn’t look like they would make it. So I thought I would give it a try.

Mike Akers August 19, 2009 at 12:16 am

Several years ago I planted a couple tomatillo plants and had a huge amount (no real idea what to do with them…). this year I decided to do it again, so I bought ONE…, when it was about 4ft tall and lots of blossoms and bees and NO fruit, I looked up growing and much to my dismay, discovered you need at least TWO!!!!

I went on a mad search and found two more, unfortunately the only place left in the garden was on the shady side of my 4ft tomatillo… I got 5 tomatillos to set, then the new plants started climbing to the sun, and shortly caught up… but still, lots of flowers, bees and no more fruit… Also my peppers were flowering with very little fruit. My tomatoes had set fruit early but seemed to be slow in setting anymore. I started reading more and came to the conclusion my feeding program (steer manure, epsom salt and miracle grow) was to high in nitrogen.

Miraculously my question was shortly answered by a radio ad.. Zamzows Trive Blossom… (I live in Boise, Idaho. Zamzow’s is a local garden center) It is a relatively low nitrogen/high phosphate fertilizer (7-28-4) diluted and sprayed on the foliage. I applied it 9 days ago and went from 5 to a couple hundred set on my now 8ft tall tomatillo plants, not to mention, my tomatoes and peppers are setting a lot of fruit now….. ie, to much nitrogen…BAD

rachel June 24, 2010 at 6:47 pm

should I cage my tomatillo plants now even though they are quite large already? Will they produce just as well if I dont cage them??

Kenny Point June 24, 2010 at 7:47 pm

Hi Rachel, your tomatillo plants will produce well even without caging. At this stage it may be difficult to cage the plants but you could use stakes or a tomato trellis to help provide some support.

chad April 14, 2011 at 2:54 pm

The reason they aren’t fruiting is that they are self-sterile. You need to plant at least two (preferably 3) to produce fruit.

Jane August 25, 2011 at 6:32 am

I’m listening to Daria and hoping she is right. We live in Ireland and I have three fine (purple) tomatillo plants outside, growing with the outdoor tomoato plants. They are flowering well and are producing a lovely husk but no fruit so far. So I hope patience will bring us late fruit. I guess we are far north and low temperature. So looking forward to cooking with them!

Amanda July 11, 2012 at 9:28 pm

I need help to positively identify if what has came up in my garden (I didnt plant) are tomatillos. They look like the pictures I have seen but no description I have found states if they have thorns or not. These plants are comming up all in my garden and even in my yard. They have a yellow flower and are producing a husk covered fruit. I pulled one of the husks to see what was inside and it was a green berry with white seeds. I have been pulling them up and mowing over the ones in my yard. I have seen this plant once before and it was growing wild behind my parents barn. If they are truly tomatillos and not some clone poisioness plant I wanna keep it. BTW I live in Southeast Texas. Thanks in advance for any help.

Wilfried August 3, 2012 at 5:54 pm

My (currently 2) plants, bought at a spring plant sale this year, do NOT show any thorns.

I had tomatillos a couple of times in the past, they never showed any thorns. Btw, the plants have a peculiar scent, sort of a mix of potato and tomato, when you brush against the leaves.

As an aside, the “real” tomatillo has a very characteristic shape: a strong, very straigth stem/trunk at the bottom, up from the root, then a 2-way forki, two-sided branch and another fork to result in a 4-way pattern of branches.

Hth.

Sorry for the potentially wrong choice of words, English is not my mother tongue :-)

robin August 12, 2012 at 8:31 pm

i have tomatillo plants for the first time and don’t understand what the heck is going onwith the,
m some are large tomato sized with nohusk firm and nice tastingothers are tiny, marble sized with a husk thet have fallen off the vine, the pictures i have seen are inbetween this, middle sized, almost filling the drying splitting husk, sticky, do i have some sort of crossed tomato tomatillo hybred thing? what can a person do with handfulls of tnny hard sticky green balls of tomatillo?

Abbi September 18, 2012 at 10:15 pm

I planted tomatillas several years ago and every year since then have had tons of volunteer plants. I weed a bunch out but let some grow too. We live in Northern MN in a zone 3/ zone 2 area. I harvested bunches of them yesterday – way more than I can use in salsa and am trying to figure what else to do with them. I am also curious about there nutritional value.

KJ June 7, 2013 at 7:34 pm

I noticed this site. Have read through the comments. So I am going to fill in some blanks. I bought some ground cherry seed from Gurneys once. I planted them one year and got some fruit as I call them. The following year I tilled the garden where they were. After that I got a small patch growing. I thought it was from seed getting tilled in. From my observation the following year after I transplanted some root stock and made sure no fruits were left on the ground. I can definitely say these plants will in fact grow from root stock as well as seed; in much the same way as a potato will. I have proven this by digging up a plant that came up in the same spot as the year before. It didn’t really surprise me, but I found a root at least 1 inch in diameter and several inches parallel with the ground. I only wish regular tomato’s would behave like that. If any of you are curious I am in zone 5 in northern Utah and even with recent below freezing winter the plants still came up. I am now going to try doing the same thing with the large “real” husk tomato variety. I may just end up making a dedicated perennial patch for them. My suggestion is if you want them to multiply separate some root cuttings with leafy stalks and leave the roots alone when winter kills of the foliage. Since many plants are perennial in nature you are only limited by your growing season length compared to starting indoors.

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