A Tantalizing Introduction to the Tree Tomato Plant

Have you ever heard of tomatoes that grow on trees? Allow us to introduce you to the fascinating world of tamarillos – a unique fruit that closely resembles tomatoes. In this article, we will delve into everything you need to know about the tree tomato, from cultivating and caring for it, to how to enjoy its delicious fruits.

Tamarillo fruits growing on a tree
Image: It is no coincidence that the fruits of the tamarillo look very similar to tomatoes [Photo: nnattalli/ Shutterstock.com]

Origin and Unique Characteristics of the Tree Tomato

The tree tomato, scientifically known as Solanum betaceum, bears striking similarities to tomatoes, hence its common name. However, unlike the tomato plants commonly found in our gardens, the tree tomato belongs to the nightshade family (Solanaceae). Originating from the Andean highlands of South America, specifically the regions near the equator, the tamarillo thrives in stable year-round temperatures. It is a shrubby tree with a dense, umbrella-like crown that can reach heights of up to six meters in its natural habitat. In the UK, where the tree tomato is not winter-hardy, it is usually cultivated in pots and attains a height of about two to three meters. Apart from its fruit, the tamarillo boasts captivating oval to heart-shaped leaves that add to its decorative appeal.

Small white tomato tree flowers
Image: The flowers emit a pleasant fragrance [Photo: ironwool/ Shutterstock.com]

Unveiling the Tamarillo Species

In the UK, we have access to two types of tamarillos. The first is Solanum betaceum, commonly known as the tree tomato, and the second is Solanum abutiloides, also referred to as the perennial dwarf tree tomato. The latter may have a misleading name, as it can grow up to two meters tall. Its bright orange berries are slightly smaller than those of the larger tamarillo variety. The dwarf tree tomato favors warm and moist environments, thriving under such conditions. Notably, every part of the plant, including its fruits, is covered with fine glandular hairs that secrete fungicidal substances. Thus, Solanum abutiloides can be utilized to produce natural sprays against fungal pathogens. During winter, it is advisable to keep the dwarf tamarillo in a cool place (5-10°C) as it undergoes a dormant period, shedding its foliage but sprouting again in the following year.

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Tip: Tamarillos have been cultivated for centuries in South America and are commercially grown in North America and New Zealand. Consequently, different varieties of the tree tomato have been bred, primarily differing in the color and size of their fruits. However, these varieties are not yet available in the UK, where tamarillo cultivation remains less popular.

Purple, red, and green unripe tree tomatoes
Image: Tamarillos vary in color during the ripening process [Photo: Quang nguyen vinh/ Shutterstock.com]

Cultivating and Nurturing Tamarillos

Given their vulnerability to frost, tamarillo trees must be moved to a frost-free and well-lit location during winter. Consequently, planting tamarillos in pots is the preferred method. These plants thrive in semi-shady to sunny environments.

If you wish to grow tamarillos from seeds, the best time to sow them is from April onwards. Utilize seedling soil and cover the seeds with a thin layer, ensuring constant soil moisture for the next three weeks. Seeds germinate well in warm, well-lit areas with temperatures of at least 20°C. Once the first seedlings emerge after around two weeks, you can transplant them outdoors after mid-May. As the tamarillo grows rapidly and requires ample water, it is crucial to employ high-quality potting soil that retains moisture and provides essential nutrients. Opting for peat-free soil helps avoid environmental damage caused by peat extraction. Our Plantura Organic Flower Compost suits tamarillos perfectly, promoting their flowering and fruiting.

Nurturing Your Tamarillo Tree

Water is the key to success when nurturing a tree tomato. With its large leaves, the tamarillo experiences significant water evaporation, necessitating a daily check to ensure the root ball remains adequately moist. However, be cautious as the tree does not tolerate waterlogging. Offering a robust nutrient supply is also essential, given the tamarillo’s rapid growth. Consider using a slow-release natural fertilizer like our Plantura Liquid Flower Food, which nourishes the tamarillo for up to three months. If you notice an increase in yellow leaves, particularly during the main growing season (May to August), reduce the time between fertilizations.

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Tree tomatoes are remarkably resilient to pests and diseases. Nonetheless, aphid infestations may occur during springtime. For natural control methods, refer to our article on managing aphids. Spider mites may make an appearance when the tamarillo is in its sheltered winter spot, but they rarely pose a problem.

Pruning your tree tomato on a regular basis is unnecessary. However, due to its rapid growth, it can exceed the desired size. In such cases, prune the overhanging shoots, preferably just before winter.

Large tree tomato leaves
Image: With their large leaves, tamarillos need lots of water to quench their thirst! [Photo: nnattalli/ Shutterstock.com]

Summary of Tamarillo Plant Care

Here’s a quick summary of caring for your tamarillo plant:

  • Ensure the root ball does not dry out
  • Use organic fertilizer during transplantation to meet its high nutrient requirement
  • Prune only when necessary
  • Enjoy the tree tomato’s resistance to pests and diseases
  • Overwinter the tree in a bright place where the temperature stays above 0°C
  • Propagation is possible through seeds and cuttings

Overwintering Your Tamarillo Tree

Before the arrival of frost, relocate your tamarillo to its designated winter spot. As the tree retains some leaves during this time, it needs ample light. An ideal temperature range is approximately 10°C, but the tamarillo can withstand temperatures just above 0°C. While the root ball should not completely dry out, regular watering is usually unnecessary during winter.

Tamarillo Tree Propagation

If your friends or neighbors desire their own tree tomato plant, you can easily propagate new ones. This can be achieved through seeds or cuttings.

To grow a tamarillo plant from seed, collect the seeds from ripe fruits, allow them to dry for a day or two, and then sow them in seedling soil.

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For propagation through tamarillo cuttings, select a healthy shoot with one leaf, approximately 20 centimeters in length. Early summer, when the plant vigorously grows, is the optimal time for this process. Place the fresh cuttings in moist potting soil without letting them dry out, and cover them with perforated cling film to prevent dehydration. Keep the cuttings in a dry and shady location, and after a few weeks, they should develop roots.

Harvesting and Enjoying Tamarillos

You can anticipate your first tree tomato harvest in the second year of growth. Tamarillo fruits typically ripen in late summer or autumn, depending on your location. When they transform into their characteristic orange to dark red shade and exhibit a slight indentation when pressed, they are ready to be harvested.

Harvested tamarillo cut open with black seeds inside
Image: When the fruits become soft to the touch, they are ripe [Photo: marcin jucha/ Shutterstock.com]

Weighing up to 100 grams, tamarillo fruits contain multiple seed chambers within. The flesh appears yellow-orange and offers a delightful sweet and sour taste. Add a sprinkle of sugar if you prefer a sweeter flavor. Since tree tomato fruits do not store well, it is advisable to process them immediately after harvest or savor them fresh.

Culinary Delights and Processing Tamarillos

If you wish to consume your tamarillo fruits fresh, you can either peel them or cut them in half and spoon out the flesh. The pulp boasts a sweet and sour flavor, perfect for those seeking a unique culinary experience. Tamarillos are not only delicious but also rich in nutrients, including vitamin C, calcium, potassium, and magnesium. They can be transformed into mouthwatering treats, such as spreads or jams packed with flavor. Additionally, tamarillos serve as excellent ingredients in savory dishes, especially in the form of chutneys.

If you have an adventurous palate and enjoy exploring exotic fruits, we recommend trying the gourmet caviar lime. Discover how to grow them in your garden by reading our detailed guide.

For more information and a wide range of gardening supplies, visit the Ames Farm Center.