Joseph Masabni, Stephen King and Clint Taylor Assistant Professor and Extension Horticulturist, and former Associate Professor, and Graduate Student; all of the Texas A&M Department of Horticultural Sciences; The Texas A&M University System
The tomatillo or husk tomato (Physalis ixocarpa) looks much like a tomato. The fruit is generally green but can be orange, yellow, red, or even purple. It is enclosed in a papery wrapping called a calyx. The condition of the calyx is commonly used as an indicator of freshness in fresh markets.
Tomatillos are not grown extensively in Texas. Seed companies carry a wide selection of varieties, including ‘Cape Gooseberry’, ‘Golden Nugget’, ‘Mayan Husk Tomato’, ‘Mexican Husk’, and ‘Rendidora’, which is an improved cultivar.
Tomatillos prefer well-drained, sandy loam soils with a pH between 5.5 and 7.3. They do not do well in wet conditions. In general, they grow in any soil that is suitable for tomatoes.
Native to Mexico and Guatemala, tomatillos are sensitive to cold. The best growing conditions are 80 to 90°F days with 60 to 70°F nights, low humidity, and sparse rainfall.
Tomatillos are normally planted as seed. About 2¼ oz of seed is sufficient to plant an acre. Commercial operations in the United States use transplants. Tomatillos are seeded in a greenhouse and sold as 3-week old transplants. Cuttings can also be used as they root very easily.
Space ‘Rendidora’ 16 inches between the plants and 4 feet between the rows. For other varieties, plant every 2 feet in rows 5 feet apart. If you are starting with seeds, plant 3 or 4 tomatillo seeds 2 feet apart. When the plants reach 4 to 5 inches tall, thin them to one plant every 2 feet.
Insects and diseases
Tomatillos have only a few serious insect pests and diseases (Table 1). Insect pests include cutworms, root-knot nematode, tobacco budworm, and whiteflies. Common diseases are black spot and tobacco mosaic virus.
The plants begin bearing fruit 65 to 85 days after seeding or transplanting and continue for 1 to 2 months or until the first frost. The fruit are picked just as the husk, or calyx, bursts. If left on the plant too long, the flavor and quality will suffer.
Harvesting is done by hand, typically every day.
A plant may produce 60 to 200 fruits in a growing season (Fig. 1). An average yield is 2½ pounds per plant, or about 9 tons per acre.
In commercial operations, the tomatillos are placed in 10-pound cartons in the field. The fruit is then set out for 2 weeks to let the husks dry.
After the 2-week drying period, the cartons can be stacked and stored at 55 to 60°F and 85 to 90 percent humidity for up to 3 weeks.
Tomatillos are used primarily for fresh consumption. They are often used in soups and sauces, most notably in green sauces for Mexican and Guatemalan dishes. Some tomatillos are preserved as jam or canned whole for later use (Fig. 2).
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