Lauterbach: Try tomatillos this spring

Special to The Idaho StatesmanFebruary 7, 2014 

Lime-green tomatillos.

MCT

After we harvest our garden produce, we eat, refrigerate, freeze or dehydrate it, but the only foods we can depend on for months to come without preservation treatment are squash and tomatillos.

Tomatillos? Yes.

Pick them before the first killing frost, and do not remove the husks. Mine with husks intact were still good for salsa ingredients Jan. 22, after having been picked the first week of October. Those without husks rotted several weeks ago. All were stored in the house with no special treatment. About a month ago, we moved them into the greenhouse, where some days were hotter than 70 degrees, nights down to 55 degrees.

That made no difference.

Their keeping capability resides apparently in the husks or the thin adhesive holding the husks. As long as they are left intact, the fruits remain firm and good. After the husks are removed, the fruits begin to deteriorate.

These fruits are delicious in salads, dipping salsas and green enchilada sauce, and if we did some experimenting, we’d probably find they’re also good in sandwiches. Husks are held in place by a slightly sticky substance that washes off easily. The fruits have an insignificant core, and require no extensive treatment other than washing and slicing if you prefer for table use.

The botanic name for the green ones is Physalis ixocarpa, and they are remote relatives of tomatoes. Commercially there are basically three types: one is green, about 1 inch in diameter, another green nearly 2 inches in diameter (Cisneros), and the third type ripens to purple.

Seed catalogs and packet labels usually fail to tell you that these plants are self-sterile, and need a pollinator (another tomatillo plant). The plants at maturity are large and sprawling, so it’s quite frustrating to grow one, and find no fruit at all on it.

Suzanne Ashworth, in “Seed to Seed,” claims the flowers of P. ixocarpa are perfect and self-pollinating in her first edition, but she may have corrected that in her newer edition. She also identifies the purple tomatillo as P. subglabrata. Since she also writes the regular green tomatillo, P. ixocarpa, will not cross with any other Physalis species, I wondered whether the purple one I intended to grow was a different species.

I decided to experiment. Last summer I planted one plant of the Cisneros, large green tomatillo, and one of the purple tomatillo in the same bed.

Would they pollinate each other? Yes, they did, although not as early as I had expected them to. Perhaps the purple one was not of a different species, or it is an exception to the “not crossing with any other species.”

I have always harvested the green tomatillos when they felt sizeable enough to work with, but Lindarose Curtis-Bruce says we should wait until the husks turn brown. If you prefer to wait, be sure to pick them before the green ones ripen to yellow or else they’ll be too sweet for salsas and other Mexican dishes. Also, after husks turn brown they often fall to the ground where they’re quickly invaded by earwigs.

Tomatillos self-seed freely, usually sending up many volunteers in spring. The year my celery overwintered and set seed, there were no tomatillo volunteers in that bed, in spite of the fact that green tomatillos had grown there the previous summer. Apparently there was something about the celery that was allelopathic (toxic) to tomatillos.

Although tomatillos are used similarly to tomatoes and both are in the Solanaceae family, they’re quite different. They’re more closely related to Cape Gooseberries, ground cherries, and Chinese lanterns.

Send garden questions to melauter@earthlink.net or Gardening, The Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83707.

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