After working as a chemist at a biotechnology company, I enjoy writing about science, travel, and gardening.
Growing Tomatillos: A Tangy and Nutritious Fruit
Tomatillos are round, green fruits with a papery husk. Some varieties of tomatillo will turn purple or red when fully ripe, while others will turn yellow. When grown from seed, tomatillos will take quite a while to produce fruit. Northern gardeners should start seeds indoors about six weeks prior to the last frost.
Tomatillos go by several other names, including ground cherry, jamberry, and tomate verde (green tomato). The tomatillo is a relative of the tomato, though the taste of the fruit is very different from tomatoes. Tomatillos have a sharp, citrus-like tang and are the primary ingredient in salsa verde (green salsa).
Tomatillos are indeterminate, which means they will produce fruit constantly through the growing season.
There are several varieties of tomatillos, including those in the table below.
Turns purple and sweet when fully ripe. Makes a unique salsa (in both color and flavor).
Toma Verde Tomatillo
The classic, tangy tomatillo. Excellent for sauces and salsa
A sweet, large tomatillo. Excellent for salsa.
Pineapple Ground Cherry
Very small fruit—becomes sweet when ripe. Excellent for salsa or jam.
Planting Tomatillo Seeds
Plant the tomatillo seeds about ¼” deep. For those who live in areas without frost, the seeds can be sown directly into the ground. Northern gardeners should sow seeds into peat pots for later transplantation. The seeds will take a little longer than a week to germinate. Keep the soil moist and protect young seedlings from frost.
Once the danger of frost is past, move the tomatillo seedlings outdoors. Transplant the seedlings into rows where the plants are about 2 feet apart. When transplanting tomatillo plants, cut off the bottom few leaves and bury the plant in the ground, leaving only the top few leaves exposed. This will cause the bottom of the plant to produce more roots, which will create a better support system for the young plant as it grows.
Tomatillo plants are quite vigorous and spreading: The plants will quickly “take over” any other plants in the bed, so be sure to provide them with their own place to grow. As tomatillo plants become quite large and sprawling, it is a good idea to use a tomato cage. This helps to keep the tomatillo plants contained and upright, and it makes it easier to find the fruit in the plants.
Tomatillo Plant Care
Tomatillos require similar growing conditions to tomatoes. They like warm (or hot) weather. Water frequently, and use a fertilizer high in phosphorus and potassium once the plants begin to flower.
Tomatillos are quite resistant to insects and diseases. They are a joy to grow because they are nearly maintenance-free. Some tomatillos will have problems with fungal diseases in areas with high humidity, but any fungicide will work to eliminate the problem. Planting the plants with sufficient room for air circulation will help to prevent fungal problems with the plants.
Fruit Development: Why Is the Husk Empty?
Many first-time tomatillo gardeners will panic: “My tomatillos have started to grow, but the husks are empty!”
Tomatillos grow by producing the husk first, and then the berry develops inside and gets larger as it matures. Empty husks are not a problem; they are simply the very beginning of the process! After a few weeks, the tomatillo berry will get bigger and bigger. Soon, the husks will be tight around the tomatillo fruit.
When Are Tomatillos Ripe?
Green varieties of tomatillo are ripe when the husk is tight and the fruit begins to split the husk. The husk will turn from green to a muted straw color and will begin to appear dry. If the fruit remains on the plant, it will eventually turn yellow. The tangy flavor is lost as the fruit becomes over-ripe, so be sure to pick the berries when they are firm, green, and the husk has been split.
Purple varieties are ripe when the fruit splits the husk and the fruit is purple. Some purple varieties need exposure to strong sunlight to develop the full purple color. Note that purple tomatillos become sweeter when fully ripe: if a traditional (tangy) tomatillo flavor is desired, pick the fruit before it turns purple.
As tomatillos are indeterminate, it can take a week or two to obtain enough fruit to make a sauce or salsa. Tomatillos store very well, as long as the husk is kept in place. Simply pull the fruit off the plant, leave the husk in place, and store on the counter for a week or two. Once enough fruit is gathered, make a tomatillo salsa or can the tomatillos for future use. Discard any fruit that appears soft or wrinkled.
Preparing the Fruit for Use
Tomatillos contain a very sticky substance under the dry husk. To prepare tomatillos for use, do the following:
- Remove and discard the husks.
- Submerge the tomatillos in clean water and rinse the sticky film off the fruit.
- Drain in a colander and proceed to use in salsa or can the fruit.
Salsa Verde Recipe (Tomatillo Salsa Recipe)
Here's a tasty recipe you can use for your freshly harvested and prepared tomatillos. Each batch requires a pound of the fruit.
- 2 cups water
- 1 pound of prepared, husked tomatillos
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 1 jalapeno pepper, chopped with seeds removed*
- 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
- 1 Tablespoon oregano
- ½ teaspoon cumin
- 2 teaspoons salt
- Place all ingredients into a saucepan and heat over medium heat.
- Cook until the tomatillos are tender. Skim any foam off the top of the salsa, as the foam can contain a bitter flavor.
- Once the tomatillos are tender, place the mixture into a blender and puree until smooth.
- Serve with tortilla chips.
*The “heat” of jalapeno peppers can vary, so test your salsa and adjust the level of pepper as desired. Some people prefer “hot” salsa, and others prefer a milder flavor. Serrano chili peppers can be substituted for a milder version of this recipe.
A medium-sized tomatillo will contain:
- 7% of the daily recommended intake for Vitamin C
- 1% of the daily recommended intake for Vitamin A
- 4% of the daily recommended intake for Vitamin K
- 1% of the daily recommended intake for Iron
- 3% of the daily recommended intake for Niacin
- 3% of the daily recommended intake for Selenium
- 3% of the daily recommended intake for Potassium
- 1g of fiber
- 1 gram of sugar
- 11 calories
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Question: I saw a picture of a green tomato shaped fruit with a purple ruffled cap on the plant, is this a tomatillo?
Answer: We often grow "purple tomatillos" in our garden. They are green with a green husk when they first start to grow but gradually turn purple as they mature. These tomatillos are fun to grow, though our "salsa verde" is not exactly green from these tomatillos! The purple variety is also smaller than the large "tomatillo gigante" we typically use for cooking purposes. I prefer the larger varieties because I have to husk fewer fruits to obtain enough salsa for my cooking purposes!
Question: It is now late September and my tomatillos are still small and not filling the husks. How much longer should I leave them before harvesting?
Answer: If you live in an area that freezes, you will need to harvest your tomatillos prior to the first hard frost of the year. This will vary by geographical area. In cold weather zones, the growing season can be very short and it may be necessary to start tomatillo plants indoors in early spring to have sufficient time for the plants to grow and for fruit to develop. Another option is to purchase started plants once the last frost date is past. I live in USDA zone 5, and planted tomatillos from seed in the middle of March, growing them in peat pots indoors until our last frost date was past. Our last frost date is in late May, so the plants had a significant start prior to planting. We have harvested several batches of ripe tomatillos from our plants and have many more in development. Fortunately, this particular September has had no frost dates for us, so I will continue to harvest until the killing frost arrives. I would watch your forecast and wait to harvest until you see a frost warning posted.
© 2011 Leah Lefler
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on July 03, 2019:
You can eat a raw tomatillo safely, but the fruit is very tart and most people don't like the flavor of the raw fruit. Cooking mellows the acidity to a great extent, making it more palatable. Cape gooseberries are a related fruit that are often eaten raw.
Bob on July 01, 2019:
Can you just eat the fruit like a grape or strawberry safely.
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on August 13, 2017:
You're welcome, Deborah. We use them for salsa verde every year - we really love making enchiladas from a sauce of the tomatillos, cilantro, and jalapenos. They are definitely worth growing in my garden!
Deborah Minter from U.S, California on August 13, 2017:
Tomatillos are tasty, great for salsa. One plant produces so many! Thanks for the article.
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on July 04, 2012:
Thank you, davenmidtown! It is possible to grow tomatoes on the coast (along with tomatillos). My grandmother grew lovely tomatoes in Costa Mesa, but I have to admit that it was in Southern California and the weather was warmer than it is in the bay area. Cherry tomatoes are fabulous (and you can make sun dried tomatoes for focaccia bread, etc. with them)!
David Stillwell from Sacramento, California on July 01, 2012:
This is a beautiful hub that is not only full of useful information, but is complete in its information. It takes the gardener/chef from seed to table and I think that is very important when introducing foods to new consumers. @livelonger: I grew up on the coast and we grew tomatoes. They will do fine if you find them a shelterd spot next to a building... sheltered being out of the wind. Start with a cherry tomato or a sweet 100. I know you just put in garden boxes but you can shelter a tomato there using a few posts and some burlap. Adding mulch to the top of the soil will also help to keep the ground temperature up.
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on January 17, 2012:
Livelonger, you do need a warm summer (at least) to grow tomatillos. We live in frozen Western NY, but our summers are hot enough to grow them. It might be worth a try, though it is probably easier to buy them in northern California! We miss Mexican food a lot - we have to make it ourselves now that we live in the middle of nowhere!
Jason Menayan from San Francisco on January 17, 2012:
Wow, a fascinating Hub! I don't think the weather is warm enough here to grow tomatoes or tomatillos, but what a pity: the purple ones are gorgeous. I LOVE salsa verde, too. I occasionally buy them from Mexican markets, so thanks for the tip for blanching/cooking them.
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on January 17, 2012:
Southafrican, thanks for the link! I am located in the U.S. so the link from a South African source is much appreciated!
southafrican on January 17, 2012:
@ Zetu, try www.livingseeds.co.za they have an amazing range of organic and heirloom seeds.
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on October 25, 2011:
Hi Zetu - you might try an eBay listing that is willing to ship internationally. Check your local customs requirements, though - a UK online site like this one (http://www.nickys-nursery.co.uk/garden-shop/seeds/... might be a better choice for purchasing seeds in South Africa...There is also this company, which appears to be based in South Africa - http://www.premierseeds.co.za/
Zetu on October 25, 2011:
Where to buy tomatillo seeds in Cape Town or Johannesburg, I want to start planting them?
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on October 21, 2011:
I'm not sure how drought tolerant they are... we live in the north so the conditions here tend to be hot/humid in the summer with weekly rain showers. They take similar care to tomatoes, so they do take regular moisture - they wouldn't fare well in a xeroscape, but if they got some water every week they'd do fine.
Lela from Somewhere near the heart of Texas on October 20, 2011:
darn deers. They are pesky. Having dogs in the yard usually keeps them away. The worst thing for growing food right now is the historic drought in Texas. Are these drought tolerant plants?
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on October 20, 2011:
Austinstar, they are really easy to grow. They seem to be pest-free, at least in our area. Nothing ate them, and they grew without any problem. I like easy vegetables to grow! We did use Liquid Fence to keep the deer away - I'm not sure if they would have nibbled on them, but our deer are pretty pesky.
Lela from Somewhere near the heart of Texas on October 20, 2011:
I may try to grow some next year. I totally adore these.
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on September 29, 2011:
Peggy, we usually use our tomatillos for enchilada sauce - which would also be healthy if it didn't involve fried tortillas, lol! Now, if only tortilla chips were healthy!
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on September 29, 2011:
I just may have to try growing them and if not, they are a constant in the grocery stores. Thanks for your tomatillo sauce recipe. Will plant to make some soon. I enjoy eating it in Mexican restaurants. Did not realize that it is so healthy. Now as to the chips...darn, I knew there was a hitch! Ha!
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on September 28, 2011:
They are extremely vigorous - just beware that they will take over any other plant in a garden bed! We had ours in a 4'x4' raised garden bed and they took over the tomatoes and cilantro we had planted alongside them. The bugs leave them alone - we used Liquid Fence to keep the deer away, so I don't know if deer would be attracted to the fruit or not...
Cindy A Johnson from Sevierville, TN on September 28, 2011:
I never realized tomatillos were so easy to grow! It is now on my list for my garden for next year. Thanks for the great information!