According to the Specialty Produce web site, the first syllable of jaltomata is pronounced with a “y” rather than a “j” sound, as in the southern “y’all.” Tack a New England pronunciation of tomato (tuh-MAH-tuh) onto that and y’all will get a highly interesting passel of plants. Their genus name may derive from the Aztec xaltomatl (“sand tomato”).
Not genuine tomatoes, the sand type nevertheless are related to our most popular garden vegetable, being part of the Solanaceae family. Most of the 60 or so jaltomata species are perennial shrubs native to the southwestern U.S., Mexico, Central America, and/or South America.
At least 40 of them have edible fruits, which can be either red, orange, green, or black. They sometimes are veined with darker colors when unripe, lending them a marbled look. Those fruits usually remain under an inch in diameter, so they more closely resemble cherry tomatoes than the beefsteak varieties.
The shrubs’ flowers vary in size from about 1/3 inch to 2 1/3 inches, in form from wheel-shaped to tube-like, and in appearance from awesome to odd. The pale green blooms of Jaltomata herrerae, for example, sport a "necklace" of red nectar. When disturbed, that nectar often resembles blood droplets spattered over the petals.
Jaltomata is a tender perennial
Of course, perennial in the areas mentioned doesn’t mean perennial everywhere. Although I couldn’t find much information on jaltomatas’ cold resistance or lack thereof, a few species are described as being hardy to USDA zone 8. So those of us farther north probably will have to grow them as annuals or container plants.
How to grow jaltomata
I started Jaltomata sinuosa last year and now have it in a pot under the fluorescent fixtures I use for grow-lights. A plant with soft and somewhat sticky foliage, it currently is producing flowers which are about 1/2-inch across. Pictured larger in the banner image here, each of sinuosa's enchanting blooms has a purple circle penciled around its center, which appears to have been smudged by an artist’s thumb to shade that color outward. The plant is supposed to make 1/2-inch orange fruits as well, but probably won’t do so indoors unless either I or my resident bad bugs get around to pollinating those flowers!
Although jaltomatas seem to prefer partial shade in their native habitats, I suspect they probably will need as much sun as they can get here in the north, along with well-drained soil. The sinuosa seeds I planted last spring began to sprout in about 20 days after being barely covered with seed-starting mix and kept at warm temperatures.
Jaltomata procumbens, however, reportedly can germinate in as little as six days. Probably the sand tomato most commonly grown, it sometimes gets confused with Solanum nigrum, since both are called “garden huckleberry.” The jaltomata produces black fruits about the size of blueberries, which the aforementioned produce site describes as flavored like “a combination of grape and tomato.” As with similarly dark elderberries, those fruits can be somewhat toxic before they are fully ripe.
More jaltomata information
Since I've barely gotten started on the jaltomatas, I'll add that the most extensive research on this fascinating genus seems to have been conducted by Central Connecticut State University. So y'all can click on over to that school's site, Jaltomata Schlechtendal (Solanaceae), for scads of further information and images!
Photos: The photos in this article are by Professor Thomas Mione, courtesy of Central Connecticut State University.