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What, TREE tomato ?

By Jean-Jacques Segalen (jjacquesMay 19, 2011
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Do tomatoes grow on trees? Well I guess that most of our readers would not buy this, even those who have never left the Big Apple and have never seen tomatoes in a garden!

Gardening picture 

ImageBut yes, although you probably know by now that I always have a mischievous spirit I can tell you with the utmost seriousness that tomatoes do grow on trees and are therefore called "tree tomatoes." Now you may have heard the other name of ‘tamarillo', does it ring a bell? In French it would become the ‘tomate arbuste' while for Spanish-speaking gardeners it will be ‘tomate de arbol'. Indeed, the fruit closely resembles a tomato, the kind of rather modest size and torpedo shape, not a 'Big Rainbow', 'Giant Belgium' or 'Ponderosa Pink' for sure. Also known as "palo de tomate," "tomate granadilla," "tomate de arvore," "pepino de arbol" or even "pix," depending on the part of Latin America where you shop, this is for us highly educated folks the Cyphomandra betacea (synonyms are Cyphomandra crassicaulis, Solanum betaceum, S.crassifolium).  This is one of the 35 documented species within the Cyphomandra genera which comes from Latin America (Mexico to Argentina), a few of those species also produce edible fruits but only the tamarillo has gained international recognition. A member of the very large Solanaceae family which has been very generous towards human beings as many plants which are of everyday use come from her; tomatoes (the real ones this time!), potatoes, hot pepper, tobacco (nature also produces poison!), eggplants and also some not to be used everyday; Jimson weed, nightshade, mandrake and so on. Tamarillo (although the name sounds Latin it was given by commercial growers on New Zealand in the 1960s who wanted a more appealing name than "tree tomato") originates from the Andean areas of Peru, Chile, Ecuador and Bolivia) where it is found between 5000 and 10000 feet (1600 to 3200 meters) high, hence more a subtropical than a tropical plant.

  ImageThe plant itself is an evergreen shrub which will not get taller than three to five meters (9 to 15 feet). The leaves are rather large compared to the size of the bush, they do have a rather foulness smell when crushed or simply brushed by which somewhat resembles the odor of some Datura, they are heart-shaped, up to five inches broad and thirteen inches long, ending in a point. The rather small pale pink flowers come in loose clusters at the end of the branches, they give birth to egg-shaped fruits attached to the plant by a long stalk, they have a pointed end and may form clusters of five to ten. Skin color varies between orange (with a yellow flesh) and purple-burgundy (with an orange flesh); the skin has a rather bitter taste and should not be eaten. The taste may vary between tomato, cantaloupe and apricot, there are nowadays various cultivars with a wide array of tastes and colors. As with most fruits the best is to pick it from the tree, open it in half and spoon it out! This will allow you to fully take advantage of A and C vitamins, calcium, potassium, phosphorous, sodium and magnesium it contains. But it can also be used like the regular tomato and cooked in various ways, turned into sorbets, jams or in ‘rougail' as we do on Reunion Island (rougail is a condiment usually made by mixing tomatoes, garlic, salt, ginger and hot pepper).

  ImageCultivation is quite easy, you can either use seeds or cuttings. Cuttings will produce shorter and more branched plants than seedlings and will also produce sooner (12 months versus 18) one plant may produce up to 20 kilos of fruits but the life of the tree is usually no more than ten years. Well-drained soils are of utmost importance as the plant will not survive long in soaked grounds and fertile ones enriched with organic matters are preferred. The plant will require full sun. Though this plant is not fussy about temperature it will not take negative ones and should be grown only in frost-free areas to avoid strenuous and time-consuming work with frost protections.  The alternative like with most sub-tropical or tropical species is to grow it in a container large enough to allow its development but not too large so you can move it inside and outside without requiring a crane...Besides South and Central America where it is wildly grown, the plant and its fruits may be found in the West Indies, Australia, India, South Eastern Asia, Africa (Kenya mostly), New Zealand and of course Reunion island!

 Image Although this tamarillo is not as deliciously sweet as the mangoes, nor as fantastically juicy as the litchis or as exotic as longans which have been all introduced in former articles I though it would help in case you go shopping on street markets in Southern countries and do not want to get the wrong ingredients for your secret tomato sauce!


  About Jean-Jacques Segalen  
Jean-Jacques SegalenI am a Parisian born professional horticulturist specialized in tropical seeds producing, living on Reunion island (just between Mauritius and Madagascar) since 24 years . I spend a lot of time gathering seeds in the wild, the ones I do not grow that is. Also a dedicated Tai-Chi practitioner and fully certified arborist-tree surgeon Just released my first book on tropical plants and fruits, check it out at barbardine.com

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Discussion about this article:
SubjectTopic StarterRepliesViewsLast Post
I want one! jazzy1okc 1 9 May 24, 2011 6:10 AM
in Ecuador treesmoocher 1 10 May 24, 2011 6:08 AM
Tomato trees Dean_Nasser 1 12 May 24, 2011 6:07 AM
Love them stellamarina 1 21 May 19, 2011 10:18 PM
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