Litchi Tomato

The thorny, cherry-like Litchi tomato fruit is easy to grow and has a wide range of culinary uses.

| December 2009/January 2010

  • litchi tomato
    The Litchi tomato is a unique heirloom plant in both appearance and taste, but until recently was used more as an ornamental than a food plant in North America.
    PHOTO: ROB CARDILLO
  • Thorny husk
    The Litchi tomato plant has some serious thorns. In some areas of South America, it’s planted around the perimeter of vegetable gardens to keep unwanted animals out.
    ROB CARDILLO
  • Fruit Cross section
    The fruit’s distinctive flavor is similar to that of sour cherries.
    ROB CARDILLO
  • Litchi tomato bloom
    The Litchi tomato’s attractive blooms resemble those of the potato or eggplant.
    ROB CARDILLO
  • Litchi tomato chutney
    Added to meat dishes or served over rice, this chutney packs a south Indian punch.
    ROB CARDILLO

  • litchi tomato
  • Thorny husk
  • Fruit Cross section
  • Litchi tomato bloom
  • Litchi tomato chutney

The Morelle de Balbis, or Litchi tomato, has been grown as an ornamental curiosity in American gardens since the 19th century, but only recently has it gained attention as a novel-tasting food. Its dark red cherry-size berries, with the distinctive flavor of sour cherries and a hint of tomato, can be used in a wide variety of culinary applications — from fruit tarts, preserves, jams and sauces, to sorbets and wine. Plus, it’s easy to grow and frost resistant.

What Is a Litchi Tomato?

The Litchi tomato comes to us from South America, where it has been an important part of indigenous cookery for hundreds of years. South Americans have developed a wide variety of local names for this plant, but it was the French botanist Michel Felix Dunal who first described the Litchi fruit scientifically, hence the common French name Morelle de Balbis (morelle is a French word for a nightshade plant; Balbis refers to the plant’s Spanish origin). Dunal gave it its first official name, Solanum balbisi, in 1813. Since then, the plant has been given a new botanical designation (S. sisymbriifolium), and has fascinated gardeners all over the world for its ornamental and culinary uses.

Because the plant itself is covered with thorns, it is sometimes used as a hedge plant to discourage animals from wandering into vegetable gardens — not a bad idea.

The fruits ripen dark red and are round and somewhat bullet-shaped, tapering to a blunt point. The interior flesh is yellow and full of tiny flat seeds that are arranged much the same way as seeds in a cherry tomato. Thus, when eaten out of hand, the raw fruit has the mouth feeling of raspberries. The actual flavor is tart and refreshing, quite similar to a sour cherry, for which it can be used as a relatively good substitute in pies.



Because the plant is in the nightshade family, and a close relative of both the tomato and potato, its fluffy white flowers resemble potato or eggplant flowers, though they are more profuse and striking. The fruit forms inside a husk like a tomatillo or ground-cherry; then, as the fruit ripens, the husk bursts open. The fruit is ripe enough to eat when it can be removed easily from the stem; if you have to pull hard, it’s not ready.

The fruit droops in clusters from stout 3- to 4-foot-tall plants (some grow as tall as 5 feet) that can be caged like tomatoes for better support. The indented leaves look vaguely like tomato leaves, although side by side the differences are easy to recognize. The plants are covered with small thorns, even on the underside of the leaves. Some gardeners mind the thorniness of the stems and fruit husks and thus wear gloves to harvest the fruit, yet just as many people are not bothered by them at all. Keep in mind that the thorns help to protect the plant and fruit from predators — even wily catbirds.

Teril
2/18/2014 1:01:16 PM

I think it's great that we are able to find and grow plants, such as the litchi tomato, that are nutritious and endure in a landscape of growing uncertainty given the changes in climate. However, when a plant is easy to grow, has few enemies, and "naturalizes easily," the first thing that comes to my mind is INVASIVE SPECIES! It's important that all of us, as gardeners or farmers, remember we have a responsibility to make sure that plants such as this do not escape into the wild, which is especially likely when they are allowed to become weedy in the garden. Many of the plants we have come to love for either food or beauty, have already invaded what's left of our wilderness, suffocating many native plants and threatening their extinction. I beg you, all of you. Grow with care, and be thoughtful of what can happen outside of your garden before planting. Also keep a careful eye on plants in your garden as they grow. Prevent them from becoming weedy pests both inside and outside your garden. This will go a long way to saving what's left of our precious native environments. You may need to be open to not planting something that is particularly invasive to your specific area. Some of my most favored plants, are no longer in the garden because they have become pests in my region. http://www.invasivespeciesinfo.gov/index.shtml is a good place to start finding out about whether or not what you plant has the potential to become a threat. There are many other online resources as well. For instance, some state agencies and universities may offer information for your particular region. Thanks! And, Happy Gardening!


Joshua Ray
7/22/2012 3:47:33 PM

What is the processing time for this recipe. It just says "seal" in recipe. Thanks.




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