Even though they look eerily similar to green tomatoes, tomatillos are a tart gift from Mexico and Central America. What is a tomatillo?
What are the steps you need to take to grow tomatillos in your growing zone? There is quite a lot to know about these plants. What are tomatillos? Raw tomatillos are called Physalis ixocarpa and are prevalent in Spanish and Mexican cuisine.
They have a fruity center with a lot of tartness and green color and are surrounded by a papery husk that you have to peel back before eating.
Tomatillo plants are a part of the nightshade family and closely related to cape gooseberries, or what you may know as the ground cherry. These fruits were a staple for Aztecs and Mayans, and they have become even more beloved to date.
They look like a little tomato and are slightly bigger than a golf ball. Other common names for fresh tomatillos are tomate verde, husk tomato, and jamberry.
What are Tomatillos?
Tomatillos have been essential food crops for millennia. Some scientists believe they have even found fossils in Argentina of these high-acidity plants that date as far back as 52-million years.
These plants grow wild throughout their native regions and even into some parts of the midwestern United States. Unfortunately, they are often considered invasive weeds in this area despite being edible.
Tribes have been using tomatillos to treat many different medical conditions, including stomachaches and headaches. They have been prized for their incredibly tart flavor and are now used and cultivated worldwide.
While you can eat them raw, most people prefer cooking with tomatillos. Some of the most popular dishes are guacamole and a green salsa called salsa verde.
People pour this green sauce over tacos, enchiladas, and other tortilla-based dishes. They complement ingredients like cilantro and lime juice perfectly.
What is a Tomatillo, and Do They Benefit Our Health?
Despite looking like small tomatoes, unripe tomatillos are a completely different fruit. So, are they even worth picking up from your local grocery store?
A single tomatillo contains about 11 calories with only .3 grams of fat and .3 milligrams of sodium. These green fruits are also low in carbs and high in fiber, natural sugar, and potassium.
Like many fruits and veggies, tomatillos support heart health, and the antioxidants work against the free radicals in our bodies. The fiber content is one of the biggest perks of eating these tangy fruits.
Not only do they support the digestive system and heart, but they prevent cancer and vision loss and improve arthritis symptoms.
There are some instances where people have allergic reactions to tomatillos. However, for most people, consuming members of the nightshade family often provides more benefits than costs.
Like all other fruits and veggies, there are many different types of one plant to choose from. Toma Verde is one of the most popular cultivars that gardeners choose when learning to grow tomatillos. They are about the size of a golf ball and easy to maintain.
Grande Rio Verde is another that many people like because they produce larger fruits with a sweeter taste.
There are also a few purple tomatillo varieties if you are looking for a fun pop of color. Purple cultivars include the Purple Coban, De Milpa, and Tiny Coban.
If you live in northern regions, there is a very special variety called the Amarylla, which produces immature green fruits, and they are only ready for harvest once they turn yellow.
This type of harvesting isn’t the same as other tomatillos, yet they work well when grown in colder regions.
How to Grow Tomatillos
Learning how to grow tomatillos in North America is feasible. Before you know it, you’ll be making tomatillo salsa and all sorts of other tasty dishes.
Unfortunately, seedlings aren’t always available at nurseries. If you have a challenging time finding them, don’t be afraid to buy some seeds and propagate them on your own.
To propagate seeds, start them indoors roughly six to eight weeks before the last frost of spring is expected in your area. Tomatillos are not self-pollinating; you must plant them in groups of two or three to ensure fruit grows.
A lot of gardeners find that two to four tomatillo plants are plenty to provide an excellent yield toward the end of the season. To attract essential pollinators, companion plant them with marigolds and nasturtiums.
Tomatillos aren’t heavy feeders like tomatoes, but you’ll be better off if you work in roughly two inches of rich compost into the soil. Test the earth and ensure that the pH is neutral and around 7.0.
Aerate the soil to improve drainage, especially when growing in raised beds or with heavy clay dirt.
Tomatillos love the heat and require full sun. Ensure that you transplant them to a sunny location. When moving them outside, bury two-thirds of the saplings to encourage roots to grow from the stem. Tomatillo spacing is roughly three feet apart for each plant.
Because they grow up to four feet tall, consider using a cage, stake, or trellis for additional support. When transplanted, add three inches of organic mulch to the plant’s base to conserve moisture and keep weeds at bay.
Growing tomatillos in containers is just as easy as growing them in the garden. Ensure the pot has sufficient drainage. A 5-gallon bucket is ideal.
Tomatillos and Pests
What is a tomatillo pest? Believe it or not, there aren’t a whole lot of pests that enjoy bothering tomatillo plants. The biggest problems when growing these crops are the insects that enjoy the leaves.
Look out for potato beetles, cucumber beetles, aphids, or any other bugs that love leaves. To kill aphids on tomatillo and tomato plants and get rid of other pests, pick these insects off by hand, spray them off with a strong stream of water.
You can also make a natural pesticide for tomato plants and tomatillos to kill them without harming the plants.
To make a simple oil spray as an insecticide, mix one cup of vegetable oil with one tablespoon of Castile soap into a bottle and shake it. When ready to use, add two teaspoons of your mixture to one quart of water.
Dump the mix into a spray bottle and mist the surface of the plants attacked by the pests. The oil in the DIY spray coats the insect’s bodies and blocks the pores that allow them to breathe.
How to Harvest Tomatillos
Tomatillos take 75 to 100 days to fully mature after transplanting. Only pick the tomatillos when they fill out their outer husks and the papery exterior starts to split. If the fruits are small and hard and the husk is loose, it is too early to harvest them.
There are occasionally times where the husk doesn’t split and turns brown and leathery-looking. This appearance is another sign that the fruits are ready for picking. Aside from the Amarylla cultivar, tomatillos that are turning yellow are overripe and lose their tangy bite.
To harvest tomatillos, cut the plant instead of pulling it, as pulling on them could damage the stems. Store your harvested tomatillos in their husks at room temperature for a week.
For longer storage options, place them in a paper bag and set them in the fridge for up to three weeks. Refrain from putting them in plastic.
Consuming and Cooking Tomatillos
Always peel away the papery husk right before eating or cooking with these fruits. You might notice that they feel slightly tacky. This sticky residue contains a chemical called withanolides that help ward off insects.
To get rid of it, rinse under hot water and gently rub away the residue with your hands.
There are lots of recipes for tomatillos. The most popular is tomatillo salsa that pairs well with all sorts of meat and veggies. If you don’t want to make salsa, roasting them in the oven with a little bit of salt and olive oil is an excellent base for many recipes.
Husk and rinse your tomatillos and place them into a saucepan with the serrano chile, onion, and garlic. Season everything with oregano, cilantro, cumin, and salt. Pour the water over the veggies and bring them to a boil.
Reduce heat to medium-low and then simmer until it is soft, about 15 minutes. Carefully pour the hot contents of the pan into a blender and puree everything until smooth.
What are tomatillos? These tangy, citrusy fruits have a one-of-a-kind flavor that we wish more people took the time to grow. They aren’t difficult to care for, and only a couple of plants provide you with enough fruits for you to can and preserve for months to come.
If you’ve been asking yourself, what is a tomatillo, share this definitive guide on how to grow tomatillos and care for them on Facebook and Pinterest.