Tomatillos are a crop I grow most years but I am not really sure why because I don’t eat them as often as I grow them. This is because I like the idea of their sour, crunchy fruits and long to eat spicy, Mexican food, cooled by a real tomatillo salsa. But the idea is much nicer than the reality. Like those lurid liqueurs that seem so delicious on holiday but are like cough medicine back home, in the cool light of day in northern Europe spuds and carrots seem far more appropriate than exotic tomatillos. I also have another problem with them which I think is personal but may be a wider issue than I know. I have a dislike of some solanaceous berries. I love tomatoes but I have never liked golden berries (Cape gooseberries), although I grow these too! There is something about the taste of these that I can’t get to like. I can’t put my finger on what it is and I am hardly a fussy eater.
But tomatillos are strange to northern European tastes. The fruits are crunchy and green, unless they are purple, in which case they are slightly sweeter, when they turn from pale green to purple, and they are sour. I can totally understand why they contrast so well with sweet tomatoes and peppers in a salsa and perfect with creamy avocado and spicy meat or beans. I am excited at the prospect!
As previously mentioned, these are in the Solanaceae and related to tomatoes and potatoes. Botanically Physalis ixocarpa, they are an ancient Mexican crop and the common name derives from tomatl. I grow the plants, from seed, sown in March, in heat, and plant them in the greenhouse in May. Plants can grow to 120-150cm high with angled stems, rangy growth and pendent, yellow, saucer-shaped flowers. The plants need support and they need warmth and sunshine. I have read that the plants are not self-compatible and that two or more plants are needed to get fruit. This seems odd to me but hardly an issue because if you raise one plant from seed you can grow two or more and it is easy to plant several together in a clump.
The plants are not what I would call attractive but, in warmer climes where they can be grown outside, and will be more compact and sturdy, they might look better.
The flowers are followed by inflated calyces, just as you would expect of a physalis (the word comes from the Greek ‘to blow up or puff up’ and/or the Latin for bladder). The fruit swells and eventually gets so big that it bursts through the calyx. The fruit is greasy or sticky. Plants are strictly perennial but treated as annuals.
If you can grow a tomato in a greenhouse you can grow tomatillos. The question is, why?