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Tamarilloes - Fussy Giant Tomatoes


Tamarilloes are fussy. The natives of the cool, upland, tropical areas of the Andes don’t like to be too cold - or too hot. In chilly NZ, they are limited by winter frosts so they are mostly grown in coastal areas. NZ, which exports around 2000 tonnes per year, invented the name "tamarillo" to make them sound more exotic than a "tree tomato". But thinking of them as a fussy giant tomato is helpful to getting a good result. You should feed them like a tomato, with plenty of nitrogen and trace elements, especially through spring and summer when they grow like mad. They also appreciate lots of watering during flowering. With shelter, feeding and irrigation you can harvest up to 20kg per plant: a banana box full off one tree.

Fruit can be red or yellow; personally I prefer the more tangy red ones. The plants grow from seed to about two metres tall, often long and leggy. Trees only fruit after they have formed 21 branches, usually after two or three years, sooner in warmer climates. Tip cuttings will flower in year one, and tend to produce a stronger, more compact bush. They only live for a decade, so it pays to always have young plants coming on to replace the old ones. Pruning increases fruit size, so in summer trim some of those leggy growing branch ends back by 60cm.

Don’t put them in your greenhouse; they grow better outside away from whitefly which covers them like snow indoors. Old wise growers will tell you to grow your tamarillo plants under the house eaves facing north. In coastal and windy areas it pays to shelter the trees, and cover them during a frost. The ideal shelter mimics a carport. A roof over the tree to keep off hail and frost, with open sides for air flow, works best.

Westland Tamarilloes fruiting under cover

Enemies: Drought and Snails

Just like citrus trees, tamarilloes will die if left to dry out, even if for only a day. In eastern areas you will have to irrigate them all summer with a drip line, or hand water every few days. In the west, your established plants will get through a few days of dry summer winds, but not many. Get the watering can out or you’ll lose your prized tree. Mulch the root zone to keep the moisture in. Watering during flowering time helps the tree to set more fruit.

Snails are a tamarillo’s worst enemy and will spend all night climbing up and eating the tiny forming fruits. Snails can eat a whole tree from the top down in a week. Use birds for snail patrol and encourage thrushes and blackbirds into your garden, remove buggy-looking leaves and control snails by night with a torch. Attack snails and slugs in general with ducks and blackbirds, chooks, and even wekas if you are in the outback.

Tamarilloes taste best cooked. If you add sugar or honey, they are perfect. They are also a delicious raw sliced addition on top of a pavlova. In Ecuador they are made into a hot chilli sauce called "aji". In Northern India (and NZ) they make pickle and chutney. My favourite preparation is a hot traditional fruit crumble, half tamarilloes, half apples, eaten with custard and ice cream.

Young plants in their first season grow up to a metre tall.

Adapted from an article first published in Lifestyle Block Magazine. Ben Gaia grows trees in the extreme climate of the West Coast of the South Island and runs a mail order nursery for organic fruit and forestry trees.

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