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Tangy tomatillos don’t really grow on salsa trees

“A farmer friend of mine told me recently about a bus load of middle-school children who came to his farm for a tour. The first two boys off the bus asked, ‘Where is the salsa tree?’ ”

— Joel Salatin, “Folks, This Ain’t Normal,” 2011

The point farmer Joel Salatin makes in his book is that it’s unnatural for people in the 21st century not to know where their food comes from. Yet, there really is a salsa tree, and it’s called a tomatillo!

OK, a tomatillo plant is not really a tree. Tomatillos (Physalis ixocarpo and other species) are green or purple fruits that grow encased in a papery husk called a calyx on vines that look similar to their more common cousin, the tomato. But a healthy tomatillo plant will grow up to 6 feet tall, and can produce more than 100 fruits until frost hits in the fall.

Native to Central and South America, fresh and cooked tomatillos are essential ingredients in a variety of Latin American dishes. For salsa verde, green tomatillos are harvested early when the fruit is about 2½ inches in diameter and has a tart, citrusy flavor. Riper green tomatillos and purple varieties taste a bit sweeter.

Last year, scientists uncovered a fossilized tomatillo in Argentina that’s 52 million years old. Tomatillos have been cultivated for thousands of years and were an important food for the Mayans and Aztecs. They’ve been grown in the U.S. since the 1860s, particularly in Texas and New Mexico.

If you want to grow your own “salsa tree,” you may still find a few starts at the garden center. Be sure to buy at least two plants because tomatillos need another plant nearby in order to set fruit.

Or you can wait until next year and start your tomatillos from seed in 3- to 4-inch pots about eight weeks before the last frost date.

Transplant tomatillos into the garden once the danger of frost has passed. Place them in a sunny location and plant deeply in rich, well draining soil and support them with a cage or trellis. Allow 2 to 3 feet in between plants so air can circulate. You can pinch off the growing tips if plants start to sprawl.

Keep the soil moist with consistent watering and mulch, and fertilize the plants regularly. Like with tomatoes, I add a balanced fertilizer when transplanting tomatillo starts into the garden, and then I use a high potassium/high phosphorous fertilizer once every two weeks when the husks appear.

It’s fun to watch fruit grow inside the papery calyx, which looks like a green Chinese lantern. Harvest the fruits when they fill out the husk and when the fruit is still firm and green (or purple). Tomatillos lose their flavor once they begin to turn yellow.

Store harvested tomatillos in their husks in the refrigerator for a week, or remove the husks and store in the fridge for up to a month, or longer in the freezer (double wrap to prevent freezer burn). When frost threatens, pull up the entire plant and hang it upside down in a dry, unheated space where fruit can continue to be harvested for a couple more months.

I agree with Joel Salatin that young people today should know what salsa comes from. Even better, they should have a chance to grow their own tomatillos and onions and cilantro — stuff that is definitely not made in New York City.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, visit her blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/.

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