Tomatillos! What are they and how do I grow them?

I am back after a VERY long hiatus!  I found it hard to work on this blog after a family member passed away a couple of years ago, but I have finally returned!

baby tomatillo

My tomatillo plants are just BARELY starting to grow fruit, and I’m already getting excited for the salsa I will be making. This week I will simply introduce tomatillos, discuss growing them, as well as connect tomatillos to potential pollination lessons. Next time I’ll have recipes!

Since tomatillos are not a staple of the American diet, kids will definitely have questions about them.  Some common questions kids (and maybe you) will ask about tomatillos:

1) What is a tomatillo?

A tomatillo looks kind of like a green tomato that grows inside a husk.  It is originally native to Mexico, and can be found in foods like salsa verde (green salsa).

Photo credit: Wikipedia


2)  So it’s a green tomato?

Nope!  A green tomato is simply an unripe tomato, whereas a tomatillo is a completely different plant.  The tomatillo is in the nightshade family, just like the tomato, eggplant, and potato, but the tomatillo is in a different genus (in other words, tomatoes and tomatillos are only distantly related).  Do not try to substitute green tomatoes for tomatillos in recipes, as they will not have the right texture or the depth of flavor that tomatillos have.

3)  Is it a fruit or a vegetable?

Tomatillos are similar to peppers, cucumbers, avocados, and tomatoes, in that they can all be called both vegetables and fruits.  For this reason, tomatillos are a good tie-in to your Parts of Plants lessons.  The Fruit part of the plant is the part that surrounds the seed.  Since tomatillos (and pepper, cucumbers, avocados and tomatoes) contain seeds, they are technically the fruit part of the plant.  But when we cook and eat foods like these, we typically eat them in savory, not sweet foods, so they can be considered vegetables.  I like to explain this to children by saying that a scientist who studies plants will call them a fruit, because of the parts of plants rule.  But a chef would call them a vegetable, because of how he or she cooks them.


Tomatillo plants may only be distantly related to tomatoes, but you can care for them very similarly to the way you care for tomatoes.  You will need stakes or cages to support the plants as they grow.  Loosely tie the plant to its support, as the stem will thicken over the course of the season, and you don’t want to choke it.  Tomatillos do best when lightly pruned.  When a new stem grows in the joint between a main stem and a side branch, it is called a sucker.  Pinching off suckers will help to increase air flow and sunlight to the center of the plant.  You will have a smaller harvest when you prune your tomatillos, but the fruits that grow will be larger and sweeter, and your plant will begin to produce fruits earlier in the season.


A Ripe Tomatillo (Photo credit:  First Tomatillo! by urtica on Flickr
A Perfectly Ripe Tomatillo (Photo credit: First Tomatillo! by urtica on Flickr

As tomatillos grow, they will swell to fill their husk, and then eventually burst out of them.  As they continue to ripen, their color will turn from green to yellow or purple.  They have the best flavor when they are still green.  So how do you know when they are ready for harvest?  Pick them when they have grown nearly large enough to fill their husk, or when they have burst out of their husk.  If you do not prune your plants, they may not grow large enough to completely fill the husk, in which case I would harvest them when the husk turns brown and papery.

The tomatillo in the center of this photo is overripe, as evidenced by the yellow color of the skin.  Tomatillos have the most flavor when their skin is still a bright green color, similar to a granny smith apple color. (photo credit:  wikipedia)
The tomatillo in the center of this photo is overripe, as evidenced by the yellow color of the skin. Tomatillos have the most flavor when their skin is still a bright green color, similar to the color of a granny smith apple. (photo credit: Wikipedia)


Tomatillo Flower
Tomatillo Flower (photo credit: National Museum of American History, in our Victory Gardens: tomatillos

Tomatillos will not self-pollinate, so you must plant at least two tomatillo plants in your garden.  If you find that your tomatillo plant grows empty husks, it is most likely because they are not getting properly pollinated (or because you only planted one plant).  Humid temperatures cause the pollen to stick inside the flower, instead of being transferred to other flowers.  Also, since tomatillos require cross-pollination, wind will not pollinate the flowers.  They instead require insects to pollinate properly.  If you do not have insects visiting your plants (if, for example, they are on a rooftop garden), if the weather has been too humid for proper pollination, or if you simply want to enhance your pollination lessons, students can pollinate them by hand. Use a tiny paintbrush with a soft tip, like one found in a watercolor set.  Swish the tip of the brush inside of one flower and then transfer the pollen to a new flower on a different plant, by swishing the tip inside of another flower.  The second flower has been pollinated!

Next week I’ll return with kid-friendly green salsa–yum!  Even the 3 and 4 year olds loved it!


4 Comments Add yours

  1. solarbeez says:

    Welcome back!!!


    1. Thanks! I forgot how much fun blogging can be! And it’s really nice to see that some of my readers still have interest after soooo long 🙂


  2. solarbeez says:

    I love the fact that you are helping the kids get in touch with nature. I like reading about it too.


    1. Thank you again! That is exactly my favorite part too, and I really miss working in a job where I’m able to do that!


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