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Tamarillo (Tree Tomato) – How to Grow: Fruit of the Month

Tamarillo stats/requirements at a glance
Ease of Raising: 1/5 Daily check-ups
Water: 4/5 Daily
Sun: 2/5 Partial shade
Training: 5/5 Absolutely, train for optimal production
Fertilise/Feeding: 4/5 Fortnightly
Time to Harvest: 5/5 Forever, 5+ months
Frost Hardiness: 1/4 Frost tender, can’t cope light frost
Uses Culinary
Most Problematic Nemesis: Aphids, Whitefly, Leafhoppers
Container Plant: Yes, easier to provide protection then

Tamarillos fruits yellow red tree tomato
Solanum betaceum
Quick intro
Tama-whatdayasay?!? This would be the likely response of most of my readers, except perhaps those from New Zealand. The tamarillo is quite the exotic fruit for those outside Oceania and is suitable to backyard fruit growing. It makes and interesting ornamental specimen and the fruits have their own unique flavour to boot.
The tamarillo’s history is very obscure and not much literature is available on the matter. It is a native of the Peruvian Andes, South America. It was domesticated and cultivated before the discovery of America. The first internationally marketed crop was in Australia during 1996.  

It is locally produced and very popular in New Zealand, whereas smaller production takes place in Rwanda, South Africa (although I have never seen one in the super markets!), India, Hong Kong, China, USA and Australia.

Science Stuff
Tamarillo, Solanum betaceum, previously known as the Tree Tomato, belongs to the Solanaceae family, which includes other well-known favourites such as the potato, tomato, capsicum peppers and even deadly nightshade!

It received its namesake fairly recently to distinguish it from the common garden tomato, seeing as the fruits are very similar in appearance, but certainly not taste. ‘Tama’ was retrieved from Maori and means ‘leader/leadership’. ‘Rillo’ is thought to have been taken from the Spanish ‘amarillo’, which is yellow. (So the tamarillos are yellow leaders!? LOL!). Other names include Tomarillo and Tamamoro. There are also several scientific names, therefore tamarillos are also synonymous with Cyphomandra betacea, Cyphomandra crassifolia, Pionandra betacea, Solanum crassifolium and Solanum insigne.

Growing Tamarillos
Tamarillos can be grown from seed or a one/two year old plant from the nursery and planted in the garden once the threat of frost has passed. 

Tamarillos are sub-tropical plants and will grow well in warm climates, especially regions that are also suited for citrus cultivation. In very hot and dry climates (such as South Africa) the plants will do well in half-day shade. It requires fertile and well-drained soil, as with most Solanum crops, it is a heavy feeder and will not tolerate water-logging. On the flip side it needs a lot of water due to its sallow root system and a heavy layer of mulch will prevent drying out which can adversely effect fruit production.

Tamarillo tree tomato plant Solanum betaceum tree tomato
Tamarillo Tree,
Solanum betaceum
It is an evergreen semi-tree (up to 5 meters tall), although it can be deciduous in cool climates. It is fast growing and will reach peak production after 4 years with a life expectancy of 8-12 years. It grows as a single upright trunk with lateral branches and has very large heart-shaped leaves. Fruits are borne on laterals, so once the desired height is achieved, snip off the growing top(s) to encourage lateral formation. Laterals will carry clusters of white flowers followed by 3-12 egg-shaped fruits per cluster. Laterals that have fruited must be removed and replaced with new branches as they will produce less fruits in the following year.

Tamarillos start to produce fruits from 18 months to 2 years. Fruits can be produced all year round in climates with little seasonal variation, but in South Africa fruits start to set in summer and only ripen in autumn-mid winter. It may seem a bit strange to grow them if they take so long to ripen, but it is truly wonderful to have some ‘fruits’ in the middle of winter! LOL!

Pests and disease
Aphids, leafhoppers and whitefly are a big problem and can amass huge numbers on the new deep red growth. Building up plant resistance through regular fertilising is key and when pests are noticed, (usually when leaves curl at their tips) the culprits will be hiding underneath. Remove all pests as soon as possible. I generally squish them when I see them, but should this be a little gross for you, you can whip up one of my home-made environmentally friendly pest control recipes.

Tamarillo new leaves Solanum betaceum tree tomato
New leaves susceptible to attack!

If constant vigilance against whitefly and aphids isn’t enough, tamarillos are susceptible to nematodes, tomato worm, tamarillo mosaic virus and powdery mildew.

Other Tamarillo Tips
It will be easier to take care of and provide protection to your tamarillos when they are planted in pots, this means a quick retreat should any ominous weather threaten. Also keep them close to an entrance or kitchen door so that you can inspect them daily for pests, disease or drought.

Tamarillos can be a nuisance to grow if you don’t provide adequate protection. They are intolerant and susceptible to just about everything; frost sensitive, intolerant of waterlogging, drought, strong winds, devastated by hail, cannot stand salt laden soils and pests can be a major problem.

This implies very good soil preparation and thorough examination of its permanent location. Mine are situated against the wall inside a little recess where about 30 cm of roof protrudes over the plants. Here it is protected from the harsh mid-day sun (11h00-13h00), it is tied to the burglar bars to prevent wind damage also frost doesn’t get to it there due to the overhang of the roof. 

Harvesting & Storing
The tomato-looking fruits are ready to harvest once they are evenly coloured and soft to the touch. The fruits come in an array of colours ranging from yellow, orange, and red to purple. Some also have longitudinal stripes. The yellow/orange ones are sweeter and the reds more acetous. They have a very interesting taste, not to everyone’s delight, something like a cross between a granadilla and rock melon. The skin isn’t eaten as it has an unpleasant bitterness.

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Tamarillos do not ripen at the same time and several harvests will be necessary. Pruning is key to good fruit yield and to limit uneven ripening. They are harvested by pulling in a snapping motion, I prefer using scissors, leaving 2-3 cm of the stem still attached for longer storage.

The fruits can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 10 weeks, but discolouration can occur should they be subjected to temperature below 3oC (38oF).  They are versatile and can be eaten raw, made into jam, chutneys and added to stews. Tamarillos have a lot of pectin, making their preservation easier. For some tamarillos recipes, see the experts @ Tamarillo – Fruit for life from New Zealand.

Tamarillo flowers represent larger and more waxy tomato flowers that can be white, yellow, pink or purple. Tamarillos are pollinated by insects, if you have a lack of pollinators you would likely have to pollinate the flowers yourself by using a soft horse-hair paint brush. Tamarillos are self-fertile but cross-pollination between trees increases successful fruit set. Therefore more than one tree is recommended for cross-pollination. To ensure cross-pollination try to synchronise your tamarillo trees and their flower production. This is done by snipping off any ‘early’ flowers from the one tree when the other has none, this should delay the first flush and hopefully the next flush will be in sync.

Tamarillo Flowers Solanum betaceum tree tomato
Tamarillo Flowers

Tamarillo seeds are similar to tomato seeds. Tamarillos are easy to rise from seed, which will produce upright trees, or cutting that will result in a more shrub-like plant. Seeds will germinate in 4 weeks when grown in 15oC (59oF) soil or 2 weeks in 25oC (77oF). 

Something interesting: Pepino, Solanum muricatum
Another native from South America and sister species to the Tamarillo, the sweet Pepino (pepino dulce to differentiate from the Spanish word ‘pepino’ that means cucumber) is another melon-tasting exotic fruit that can be grown in backyard gardens.

Pepino Solanum muricatum fruit plant flower
Pepino, Solanum muricatum

The plant and flower are more reminiscent of an eggplant, but the fruits resemble melons. It has a taste of a mix between a cucumber or pear and a honeydew melon. Therefore is also called the Pepino melon or pear melon. I would imagine that its growth requirement are similar to most other Solanums, so hot climate with lots of watering and some pruning should improve the fruit yield. I have seen them in the nurseries recently so they should be easy to come by. The Pepino, similar to the Tamarillo has several other common and scientific names, but they are far more numerous i.e 10+ scientific names and additional varieties which are not formally recognised.

My Tamarillos
My Tamarillo has quite the story. My uncle had a tamarillo in his yard and it produced so much fruit that most lay wasted on the ground. I asked him whether I can have some of the fallen fruit for seed. I sowed about 20+ seeds and only 3 germinated. I lost one to disease and the other two made it to maturity (planted in 2010). They made their first flowers two years later (2012), but no fruit came from it and in 2013 we had about 20 fruits. Thereafter we had many fruits on each plant as they enter their 4th year. The tamarillos had it rough during some of our worst drought years (2014-present) since 1904, sadly they perished  from the extreme heat  during the 2015/16 summer season. I have not yet planted new seedlings (I had the foresight to save seeds from each plant every year), since I am not convinced that our drought years are quite done with us yet…

…What happened to the parent tree from whence mine came? My uncle removed them to plant palms!!! I was not impressed to hear this, to my mind the tamarillo was much more of a feature plant and definitely more valuable than stupid palms…*Sigh*

Tamarillo Flowers and fruits various stages Solanum betaceum developing tree tomato
Tamarillo Flowers and fruits various stages

If you don’t have an unappreciative family member with a tamarillo plant available for propagation, I have noticed that they have become available for purchase at selected nurseries. I did see some at Garden World and several other nurseries lately


7 thoughts on “Tamarillo (Tree Tomato) – How to Grow: Fruit of the Month

  1. Great article! I’ve been growing this one tamarillo plant, I live in Canada, so not the best weather, but it survived last winter (and a plague of aphids) and it’s going to it’s second one. My problem is, during this summer the plant grew like crazy, it’s more than 2m high now, and when I brought it inside to avoid the cold, it’s touching the roof. Can I cut the top without killing it?


    1. Hey hey Colleen! They should do well with the humid environment, however they would likely require shelter from the wind. Additional support from stakes/trellises would be recommended, especially on the fruit bearing branches. Hope that helps!


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