From the Chia Pet to the Topsy Turvy tomato planter, every year the newest wave of garden gadgets or plants hits the marketplace. One of the newest is the tomato tree. A University of Georgia expert advises home gardeners to do their homework before ordering one.
“Tomato trees are being advertised in the backs of magazines as one of the newest gardening plants,” said Wade Hutcheson, the UGA Cooperative Extension agent in Spalding County. “This is definitely a case of buyer beware.”
Trees vs. plants
The tomato tree (Cyphonandra betacea) is a perennial shrub, he said. If planted in the proper region, the tree produces fruit from flowers in three months.
Tomato plants (Solanum lycopersicum) are annual vines that produce fruit in weeks, not months.
“The heavily producing (tomato) tree bears tomatoes that are oblong in size,” Hutcheson said. “I’ve never tasted or seen one, but I’ve been told they are nowhere as sweet as traditional tomatoes.”
Clarke County gardener Gary Burton agrees. He grew tomato trees from seeds a few years ago.
Ugly, tasteless fruit
“They did grow tall, and the tomatoes were large,” he said. “But the fruit was ugly, scarred and split. And it didn’t have a memorable flavor.”
Burton said the trees were easy to grow, but took up a lot of space. He grew several and shared the plants with his gardening friends.
“Several people who took them pretty much had the same experience I did,” he said. “Only one person asked me about the tomato trees the next season, and I haven’t planted them again.”
Most of Georgia too cold
Unluckily for most Georgians who may want to try growing a tomato tree, the plant must be grown in frost-free locations.
“The definite downside is that it’s not going to survive outside in Georgia’s winter,” Hutcheson said.
As for Burton, he’s staying true to traditional tomato plants.
“Tomato tree fruit may be big, red and juicy, but it’s not nearly as good as Big Beef, Park’s Whopper or Goliath Hybrid,” he said.
The trusty tomato is a household staple and doesn’t necessarily scream ‘exotic’. However, there is one tomato that stands out from the rest – the tree tomato or tamarillo (Cyphomandra betaceae). The name ‘tree tomato’ may cause some confusion as the fruits look like tomatoes but definitely do not taste like them, and have a flavour profile so difficult to pinpoint that ‘tamarillo flavour’ is really the only way to describe it. This small tree hails from South America and although its fruits are lesser known than the typical tomato, it is no less tasty. This is one of those unknown plants that can’t really be put into words, but you can easily experience it for yourself with these growing tips.
Growing and care
The tree tomato thrives in warmer climates with minimum temperatures of above 10°C. In colder climates it is best to plant in a large pot that can be brought inside in winter, although you will sacrifice some fruit yield. Tamarillos can grow in many soil types if there is enough drainage, but fertilising is best for consistent growth. These trees should usually be planted in full sun but can tolerate partial shade in hotter climates. As they have shallow root systems and brittle branches, it is important to protect the trees from high winds and to stabilise them. Be careful not to cut wind off completely though, as this prevents self-pollination. Once planted, tree tomatoes will require frequent watering but cannot sit in water as a mere 2 – 3 days in water is enough to kill the tree. Fertiliser should be used about four times a year and the trees should be pruned regularly to promote branching in younger plants and to increase the size of the fruits. Luckily, tamarillos do not have too many issues with pests, although aphids and fruit flies are a concern and should be monitored to ensure healthy fruit production. The most common disease to be aware of is powdery mildew.
Tamarillos do not ripen at the same time and harvesting times can vary throughout the year. It takes about 25 weeks for the fruit to ripen for eating purposes, indicated by the colour change from green to red or orange depending on the variety. The fruits don’t last very long in storage and should be used within 10 days if kept in the fridge. As these trees usually bear several fruits in clusters it is best not to leave them on the branches as they can snap or attract fruit flies. Tamarillo trees can produce up to a whopping 20kg of fruit, but luckily there are a number of delicious recipes you can take advantage of.
Although it is a lesser known fruit, tamarillos have made a name for themselves in the health community as one of the healthiest fruits around. It is one of the most nutritionally dense fruits, despite its low calorie count, and is packed with vitamins A, C, E, B-complex vitamins and a number of nutrients and minerals that improve the immune system. It is the perfect fruit for weight loss and skin health, plus it can aid those with diabetes, high blood pressure and heart problems. You can use tamarillos for just about anything – sauces, chutneys, salads, jams or even raw sprinkled with some sugar. The seeds can be eaten although they have a strong bitter flavour and the tough skin should be removed before use. Sticking to it’s South American roots, tamarillos are a great base for a spicy salsa to serve with chips, bread, fish or meat.
Tamarillo Tree Tomato Plant
Fruiting late autumn to early winter, the egg-shaped ruby red fruits have more of sweet flavour as opposed to the traditional ‘savoury’ flavour of a tomato. The fruit can be eaten raw, stewed, grilled, bottled, chopped in salads, to garnish steaks, liquidised to make fruit drinks or sorbet, made into pickles, wines, or delicious jams and fruit jelly – it really is a lovely to grow and eat!
Whilst these originated from South America it is in New Zealand where this has become a really popular crop.
- Perennial in habit, the plant itself grows at a staggering rate and looks not unlike a rubber tree in appearance.
- Potentially this can grow to around 12 feet (3.65 metres) tall with a spread up to 8 feet (2.4 metres) – but can be kept with pruning to a height of around 6 feet (1.8 metres).
- In Summer grow it in a large tub; it can be grown outdoors but remember, move inside before the onset of snow and frost!
- Pot on as required, gradually increasing in pot size using either a John Innes No.2 or similar peat based compost.
- Ideally you should end up in a large container – half barrel or similar. Whatever you use, ensure it is well drained to avoid water-logging.
- It is quite natural for the lower leaves to yellow and drop off as it grows to maturity and need not cause any concern.
- Only moderate feeding with a sensible product, such as our Instant Life is recommended. On no account use bonemeal, fresh manure or any other additive to encourage lank ‘soft’ growth.
- The ideal Winter growing temperature for these is around 60F (15C) or above, however these survive at temperatures as low as 40F (5C). Whilst we have known these to recover even after frost, but intense cold and damp is not recommended.
- Like all garden stock, care should be exercised to control the usual run of pests and diseases, i.e. white fly, aphids and soil pests. Any spray used on tomatoes or fuchsias will not prove harmful to the Tamarillo.
- Should your Tamarillo grow too big in a short space of time, it can be headed back with a saw. This sounds very drastic but recovery is quite staggering with many fresh shoots breaking from the stem. Only permit about three.
- White clusters of flowers appear, similar to potato flowers. These self pollinate and egg shaped fruits subsequently develop.
- An individual tree can produce several hundred fruits in varying stages of ripening spreading cropping over several months. It is ripe when the fruit darkens to a deeper red and often will drop.
Seeds are now available at our seed store.
An extremely fast growing shrub to 20ft. Flowers are self-pollinating, and tree tomatoes may bear from seed in just over a year.
Although it does better in climates where the temperature stays above 50F, the tree tomato is subtropical and will bear fruit in cooler climates. Hardy to 25F.
Requires lots of water and good drainage–standing water will kill the plant in just a few days. Makes and excellent container plant in cold climates.
Propagation is usually by seed, but grafting is also possible. Seeds can sprout quickly and seedlings usually show vigorous growth.
Uses are similar to common tomato. Eaten fresh and often boiled or pureed to flavor drinks.
Native to the Andes mountains of Peru and Chile. Is now grown commercially in California an New Zealand.
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Tree Tomato? What is a Tree Tomato?!?
A s I wandered around the executive lounge at the Hilton Nairobi hotel, I noticed in an area of fresh fruit a somewhat small reddish object shaped almost like an egg but looking like a distorted plum.
A tree tomato or tamarillo. Photograph ©2015 by Brian Cohen.
“Excuse me. What is this?” I asked the attendant in the lounge, pointing at this unfamiliar fruit.
“That is a tree tomato”, she responded.
“Yes, sir”, she said, smiling as the question marks were popping out of my head in different colors. I had never heard of the name tree tomato.
Curious, I took one to sample. After sitting down at a small table, I cut one open.
The inside of the fruit was indeed reminiscent of a tomato — if you applied a little imagination.
Tasting a Tree Tomato
I then tasted it. My tongue was greeted with a pungent and tangy flavor that was both slightly sweet and slightly bitter and did have a hint of a tomato note — but it was no tomato. I then learned that it was the skin which contributed to the bitterness; so I scooped out the flesh — whose firmness and juiciness reminded me of a plum — with a spoon. The flavor did not improve much; and the seeds were larger and more firm than those found in a tomato.
Overall, the tree tomato was not terrible; but it is also not a fruit which I would crave to eat. I had a difficult time attempting to finish it — and was ultimately unsuccessful.
What Is a Tree Tomato — and How Can It Be Used?
Curious, I searched for the term tree tomato on the Internet and found that it is a nickname for tamarillo, according to this article found at Wikipedia. I have heard of a tamarillo but I do not recall ever having tried one.
Native to countries in northern South America, the tamarillo is apparently popular in certain local regions around the world. I am guessing that Kenya is in one of those regions.
A cursory search on FlyerTalk revealed that the tamarillo is used in a special juice known as a Martebe in which it is mixed with passion fruit; and meats such as chicken can be braised in the fruit. You can also find menu items such as octopus carpaccio served with frisee and braised vanilla tamarillo.
The tamarillo can be used for a wide variety of food applications, according to the aforementioned article — including being added as an ingredient to stews, juices, teas, compotes, preserves, sauces, chutneys and curries; or used in desserts. It can also be eaten raw.
If it were not for the seeds, a tamarillo might be something which I could learn to like. This is probably one of those fruits to which I have never paid any attention or was not aware; but I would not be surprised if it is destined to one day eventually become as popular as a kiwi fruit.
Have you ever tried a tree tomato or tamarillo? If so, what do you think about it?
All photographs ©2015 by Brian Cohen.