With fossil records dating back 52 million years ago in Patagonia, Argentina, the tomatillo (genus Physalis) is one historical fruit. This member of the Solanaceae family, which consists of all nightshades including tomatoes, potatoes, tobacco, peppers, and eggplants, was cultivated by the Aztecs and has been a staple food for areas in and south of Mexico. This tangy little summer annual, resembles a tomato, but stands out because it wears a papery calyx, often called the husk. While there are at least 75 known varieties of tomatillos, two prevalent species that are grown are Physalis ixocarpa and Physalis philadelphica. P. ixocarpa is the larger greenish yellow tomatillo (and is more common) and P. philadelphica is a smaller purple tinted tomatillo. Both species have a texture similar to a tomato, with a slight citrusy flavor, although P. philadelphica is a bit sweeter.
While the tomatillo is a popular food in Mexico and Central and South America, it is cultivated in several countries and is increasing in popularity. The growing popularity is due to its unique taste, but it also has many health benefits. One medium sized tomatillo (34g) offers 11 calories, <1g of fat, <1g of protein, and 2g carbohydrates (1g of which is dietary fiber). Tomatillos are a good source of Vitamins C, K-1, and B-3 (Niacin)and the minerals potassium and manganese. Tomatillos also offer phytochemical compounds called withanolides. Withanolides are important to health because they exhibit substantial biological activities. These activities include the ability to act as an antimicrobial, antitumor, anti-inflammatory, and immunomodulatory agent. The typical withanolide has been shown to suppress the growth of many types of tumor cells, through apoptosis, in cancers such as breast, pancreatic, prostate, lung, leukemia, and head and neck squamous cell carcinoma. This makes it a powerful tool in the fight against cancer.
To grow tomatillos, you can create conditions in your garden that would be similar to those used to grow its relative the tomato. Your chosen location should be in full sun and in well-drained soils that have been amended with organic compost. Plant your tomatillos after all danger of frost has passed, as tomatillos are extremely frost sensitive. They are somewhat drought tolerant, but extreme heat during flowering can result in poor fruit production. Therefore, if you have a shorter growing season in your area, it’s best to plant seedlings, as opposed to seeds, to allow for proper flowering time before the summer’s heat sets in. Also note that in order for tomatillos to flower and produce fruit, you will need to plant at least two tomatillo plants. This is due to the fact that tomatillos are self-sterile and need cross-pollination to produce fruit.
As you plant, space tomatillos 3’ apart and put cages around each to help support vertical growth. Allowing them to grow upright will reduce damage caused by cutworms, snails, and slugs. Keep plants well hydrated by putting 1-2” of water on per week, but don’t let the foliage remain wet. Also continue to control weeds to decrease competition and to allow for proper airflow in your garden. Doing so will help reduce the possibility of developing blights and other foliar diseases. These indeterminate growers will produce fruit until frost sets in, so keeping them healthy all through the summer and fall will ensure an abundant crop.
When tomatillos are ready to harvest, which is approximately 75-100 days after planting, look for firm fruit, and husks that have turned from green to tan. Once picked, tomatillos with husks intact can be placed in a paper bag and stored in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. If husks are removed the fruit can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 3 months. You may notice a sticky residue once the husks are removed. Simply wash the tomatillo before using to remove any stickiness.
When you have successfully grown and harvested this lovely little annual, it’s time to enjoy it! While no doubt the tomatillo is most famous for being the star of some fantastic salsa verde recipes, there is even more you can do with it. Being an aficionado of the egg dish shakshuka, with its ever varying mix of spices, I thought I would include a version of it here made with tomatillos instead of tomatoes. I find cooking this creation in a cast iron skillet makes for the best shakshuka.
8-12 tomatillos (depending on size), husks removed
8 cups spinach
1 small bunch fresh cilantro
1 jalapeño, stemmed and seeded
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 large white or yellow onion, minced (shallots can be used as a substitute)
2 garlic cloves, minced
Suggested Spices – feel free to mix and match: (½ teaspoon -more or less-of each, depending on tastes)
Cumin, Coriander, Caraway, Ceylon Cinnamon, Paprika, Chili Powder, and/or Turmeric
Salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
6 large eggs
4 ounces crumbled feta
In a food processor blend tomatillos, spinach, cilantro, and jalapeño into a coarse mixture (not a puree)
In a cast iron skillet heat olive oil over moderate heat
Add onion, garlic, and your choice of spices to the skillet
Sauté until onions are softened and mixture is very fragrant
Add tomatillo mixture to the skillet
Cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally
Add salt and pepper
Make indentations in the sauce and crack 1 egg into each indentation
Cover and cook until the whites of the eggs are set and yolks are slightly runny
Top with feta
Tomatillos for any and all
Tomatillos may be foreign to you or are already a staple in your diet. Either way, growing and cooking with this distinctive fruit is great way to add a little zing to your garden and meal time creations. With their exceptional taste, easy growing style, and remarkable health benefits, tomatillos make for a wonderful addition to gardens and kitchens everywhere!
Everhart, E. et al. April 2003. Iowa State University Horticulture Guide. Home Gardening. Tomatillos. https://store.extension.iastate.edu/Product/Tomatillos
Kindscher, K. et al. September 5, 2012. Economic Botany. The New York Botanical Garden Press. The Ethnobotany of Physalis Longifolia. V: 2012. Pages: 1-13. http://nativeplants.ku.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Physalis-Ethnobotany-paper.pdf
Nutritionvalue.org. 2017. Nutrition Value. Tomatillos, raw. https://www.nutritionvalue.org/Tomatillos,_raw_nutritional_value.html
University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Services. March 2012. University of Kentucky. College of Agriculture. Tomatillo. http://www.uky.edu/Ag/NewCrops/introsheets/tomatillo.pdf
Wilf, P. et al. January 6, 2017. Science. Eocene lantern fruits from Gondwanan Patagonia and the early origins of Solanaceae. V: 355. I: 6320. Pages: 71-75. DOI: 10.1126/science.aag2737. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/355/6320/71