International Gardener

Tomatillos: Add a Mexican Flair to Your Cooking

By Pat Dickey, Fairfax Master Gardener

Tomatillo husk & peeled

Tomatillo in husk and peeled

If you have ever had salsa verde at a Mexican restaurant, you probably have tasted a tomatillo. It is not made with a green tomato as you might think, but with a husk tomato cultivated in Mexico and Central America for thousands of years, since 900 BC. The pronunciation for their name is (tom a TEE yo). Tomatillos are from the Solanaceae family of nightshades, including tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, potatoes and ground cherries.

Tomatillos (Physalis ixocarpa and Physalis philadelphica) are of various small sizes, 1 to 3 inches in diameter, and look like paper lanterns on the vine. They are covered in light brown papery husks, called calyxes. The husks enlarge and cover the fruits and finally split when the fruits are mature. You will need to check the fruits to be sure they fill the husks, because sometimes they are also filled with air and are not quite ready to be picked. The fruits usually fall on the ground when they are ready. Some larger tomatillos need to be cut off the vine. All of them ripen to a yellowish green or purple color. The mature fruits are hard and have a tart, somewhat citrusy, flavor.

Plant tomatillos in full sun, and cage or stake them like tomatoes in your garden 2 to 3 feet apart. The vines are not as thick as those on tomatoes, and the tomatillos can become bushy and take up a lot of space. Tomatillos will also grow well in a five gallon container. They do not tolerate soggy, wet soil. A pH of 6.5 to 7.0 is preferred, and they require regular waterings of 1 to 1 ½ inches per week. Overall, tomatillos have some of the insect visitors that tomatoes have. Snails, slugs and beetles may eat the leaves. However, insects do not seem to bother them.

tomatillo on vine

Tomatillos on the vine

One important point: Plant your tomatillo plant with at least one other tomatillo plant because they need to cross-pollinate with each other to bear fruit. In past years, I have purchased tomatillos with two plants in the same pot, which was done intentionally so that you have at least two plants. They take 75 to 100 days before they are ready, and they set most of their fruit