The tomatillo (Physalis ixocarpa or P. philadelphica) is a member of the nightshade family, like tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers, and is known by many names such as husk tomatoes, Mexican green tomatoes, and strawberry tomatoes. Although tomatillos look similar to Chinese lanterns, they are a separate species.
In its native Mexico, the tomatillo is known as the tomate verde and has been a kitchen mainstay for centuries. It has a tangy, citrusy flavor and can be consumed fresh, cooked in stews or soups, mole sauces, and various types of salsa, or preserved through canning.
While a relative of the tomato, the tomatillo is notably different with its tight fitting, purple-veined and light-brown or green papery husk. The purple or green fruit is firm, covered in a tacky residue, and roughly 1 to 2 inches in diameter, or about the size and shape of a large walnut.
Types & Varieties
Tomatillos range in color from green to purple to yellow. Preferred purple cultivars include Purple Coban, Purple de Milpa, and Purple Hybrid.
Popular green cultivars include Gigante, Gulliver Hybrid, Rendidora, Tamayo, and Toma Verde. The green fleshed Rendidora is particularly prized for its large fruit, upright growth, and high yields both in Mexico and the United States.
Tomatillos can be eaten at many stages of the growing process with differing taste. At full ripeness, usually green or purple, tomatillos are tart and citrusy, somewhat similar to a green apple and ideal for salsa verde.
Tomatillos should be harvested as soon as they ripen, or they can become overly sweet, bland, and yellow.
Tomatillo production is similar in many ways to its cousin, the tomato. A warm season crop, tomatillos should only be planted after the fear of frost has passed. The annual prefers full sunlight and fertile, moist, well-drained soils. If drainage is a concern, tomatillos grow well in containers.
Tomatillos are often transplanted rather than direct seeded. Due to their tendency to sprawl, many growers prefer to make use of trellises or stakes to keep fruit off the ground and improve air circulation. Due to their similarities, tomatillos can also be grown in tomato cages.
Optimum growth occurs at 65°F with poor growth linked to temperatures below 61°F. Row covers can be used early in the season to increase warmth and promote vigor. Excessive heat during fruiting, however, will lead to reduced yields.
Pests & Diseases
Tomatillos are considered fairly disease resistant, but opportunistic pests may present challenges. The three-lined potato beetle can be a serious threat if allowed to establish itself and can overwinter in soil. Careful weeding and netting or other covers can help prevent infestation.
Aphids feed on the underside of leaves, causing them to crinkle, and leave ‘honeydew’ secretions that attract other pests. Tomato fruitworms can damage both leaves and fruit.
Other potentially damaging pests include banded cucumber beetles, cutworms, greenhouse whiteflies, flea beetles, leafminers, snails, and slugs.
Powdery mildew can cause serious damage late in the season leading to plant decline. White patches appear on leaves, will spread, and can kill plants.
Leaf smut begins with green spotting on leaves that turns bright yellow. The disease targets older leaves first and can significantly damage crop yields.
Root rot is a concern in wet conditions. Other diseases of concern include various types of blight, cucumber mosaic virus, physalis mosaic virus, and spotted wilt virus.
Storage & Packaging
Tomatillos are harvested once the fruit fully fills the husk and it has turned from green to tan or brown. Since the husk or calyx does not grow at the same rate as the fruit, when ripe, the fruit will often break through this protective covering.
Fields are typically harvested by hand, multiple times per season depending on the variety and conditions. If headed for the fresh market, tomatillos are often harvested with their husks intact. Tomatillos produce more fruit per plant than tomatoes. As they are not graded by size, tomatillos of different diameters are packed together, typically in 40-pound crates.
To improve longevity, tomatillos should be cooled immediately after harvest—though because the fruit is sensitive to chilling injury, temperatures should not fall below 45°F for any extended period of time.
The fruit is also sensitive to ethylene, which will cause yellowing. Typical storage and transportation temperatures range between 45°F and 55°F with 90 to 95% relative humidity. A quality tomatillo will be free from decay and yellowing, firm, and green or purple depending on variety.
References: Louisiana State University, University of California Extension, University of California Vegetable Research and Information Center, University of Kentucky Extension, University of New Hampshire Extension, Utah State University Extension.
GRADES & GOOD ARRIVAL
There are currently no U.S. grade specifications for tomatillos.