What Is A Tomato Tree? (10 Things You Should Know About Tamarillo)


A tomato tree is not what it sounds like.  A tomato tree (Tamarillo) is not the same as a tomato plant – it is a separate species with branches, leaves, flowers, and fruit that are very different from a tomato plant.

So, what is a tomato tree?  A tomato tree (Tamarillo) is a perennial shrub, native to South America (subtropical). It is part of the nightshade family, Solanaceae (related to tomatoes & peppers). A tomato tree has odorous green leaves, fragrant pink or lavender flowers, and edible fruit that is yellow, orange, red, or purple.

Of course, a tomato tree can grow much taller than most tomato plants, so you might not want to plant them too close to other plants in your garden that need full sun.

In this article, we’ll talk about the tomato tree (Tamarillo) and what you need to know about it.  We’ll also answer some common questions, including where you can find tomato trees or their seeds to grow your own.

Let’s get started.

What Is A Tomato Tree?

A tomato tree (Tamarillo or Solanum betaceum) is a perennial shrub that is native to South America.  It is subtropical and a member of the nightshade family, Solanaceae (the same family as tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and eggplants).

tamarillo tree tomato
A tomato tree (Tamarillo) is a subtropical perennial shrub. It is in the Solanaceae family with tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and potatoes.

The leaves of a tomato tree are shiny, succulent, and evergreen, with a musky smell.  The fragrant flowers are pink or lavender, growing in clusters at the tips of branches.

A tomato tree is self-fertile, but insects also help to improve pollination of flowers.  You can propagate a tomato tree by seeds or stem cuttings (Note: Tamarillo does not grow true from seed!)

The fruit of a tomato tree is edible, but not as flavorful as tomatoes. The color can range from yellowish-orange to reddish-purple.

tamarillo fruit tomato tree
The fruit of a tomato tree (Tamarillo) can range from yellow or orange to red, purple, or nearly black.

A single Tamarillo tree can yield over 50 pounds of fruit per year!

The fruit is shaped like an egg and contains lots of seeds.  It is generally 2 to 4 inches long and 1.5 to 2 inches wide.

A tomato tree can reach a height of 6 to 18 feet, with a width of 4 to 8 feet.  The plants tolerate humidity, but are not very cold hardy: they can survive up to Zone 9b (minimum temperatures of 25 to 30 degrees Fahrenheit, or -4 to -1 degrees Celsius).

frosted leaf
A tomato tree does not like frost, and it will be difficult to grow them year-round north of Zone 9b.

Is Tree Tomato Related To Tomato?

Tomato tree (Tamarillo) is related to tomato.  They are both in the same family, Nightshade (Solanaceae).

This is the same family as potatoes, peppers, eggplants, tobacco, and goji berries.

eggplant on vine
Eggplant and tamarillo is in the same family (nightshade), along with tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, tobacco, and goji berries.

What Does A Tomato Tree Look Like?

A tomato tree looks totally different from a tomato plant.  A tomato tree has branches that are more like the woody branches of a tree.

tamarillo fruit on tomato tree
The branches of a tomato tree (Tamarillo) are more woody than the green vines of a tomato plant.

It also has long, heart-shaped leaves with pointed tips.  When flowers appear, they are pink or lavender.

The fruit has long stalks and is elongated, with an egg shape.  Tamarillo fruit can be yellow, orange, red, purple, or near-black.

How Big Does A Tomato Tree Grow?

Generally, a tomato tree can reach a height of 6 to 18 feet at maturity.  However, in some cases, a tomato tree can grow up to 25 feet tall!

tamarillo tomato tree
A tomato tree (Tamarillo) can grow up to 25 feet tall, but most are 6 to 18 feet tall at maturity, with a width of 4 to 8 feet.

A mature tomato tree has a width of 4 to 8 feet.

What Does Tree Tomato Taste Like?

According to Purdue University, the skin of a tree tomato is tough and has an unpleasant taste.  The flesh closest to the skin is firm but bland.

tamarillo fruit
The fruit of a tomato tree (Tamarillo) has skin that tastes unpleasant, with bland outer flesh (near the skin) and sweet/sour inner flesh (near the seeds).

The flesh closest to the seeds is soft and juicy, with both sweet and sour flavor.  The flavor reminds you of an under-ripe tomato.

When To Plant A Tomato Tree

If you want to grow your own tomato tree transplants, start the seeds indoors 12 to 24 weeks before the last frost.

When transplanting, wait until after the last frost to put a tomato tree outside.

frost
Wait until after last frost to transplant tomato tree outside.

You can find the last frost dates by zip code with this tool from the Old Farmer’s Almanac.

You may want to harden off your transplants or young tomato trees by slowly exposing them to brighter sunlight over the course of 1 to 2 weeks.

You can learn more about hardening off plants here.

Where To Plant A Tomato Tree

The best place to plant a tomato tree is in a bright location with full sun (although they can tolerate partial shade).  The soil should be light, fertile, and slightly acidic to slightly alkaline, with a pH of 6.1 to 7.8.

daylight
Tomato tree (Tamarillo) prefers full sun, but can tolerate partial shade.

A tomato tree needs loose, fertile soil with excellent drainage.  If the tree stands in water for a few days, it will get damaged or die.

However, the trees cannot tolerate drought, so keep them watered (drip irrigation might be helpful for this).

drip irrigation emitter
A drip irrigation system can help you to keep a tomato tree hydrated without over watering.

How Long Do Tomato Trees Live?          

A tomato tree can live up to a decade or more (12 to 15 years) if climate allows.  They can bear fruit at 2 years old and many continue to produce for 5 or 6 years.

Do Tomato Trees Die In Winter?

Young tomato trees (seedlings and cuttings) will die in winter if they are not protected from frost.  Temperatures of 28 degrees Fahrenheit (-2 degrees Celsius) can kill the small branches of established tomato trees.

tamarillo leaf tomato tree
A frost can damage the fruit, flowers, leaves, and small branches of an established tomato tree. Frost can also kill tomato tree seedlings or cuttings in the first year.

Tomato trees perform best at temperatures above 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius).  Their preferred temperature range is 15 to 20 degrees Celsius (59 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit).

The table below summarizes the effect of various temperature ranges on tomato trees (Tamarillo).

Temperature
Range
Effect On
Tomato
Tree
Freezing
(below
28F/-2C)
Seedlings & cuttings
die. Mature trees
may also die. Loss
of flowers & fruit.
Frost
(28 to 32F/
-2 to 0 C)
Seedlings & cuttings
die. Mature trees
lose small branches,
flowers, & fruit.
Cold
(32 to 50 F/
0 to 10 C)
Plants can survive,
but colder than
ideal. May delay
fruiting &
development.
Cool
(50 to 59 F/
15 to 20 C)
Cooler than the
ideal temperature,
but plants can
easily survive.
Ideal
(59 to 68 F/
15 to 20 C)
Ideal temperature
for growth, flowers,
& fruit.
Warm
(above
68F/20C)
Warmer than the
ideal temperature,
but plants can
survive if it is not
too hot.
This table summarizes the effect of various
temperature ranges on tomato trees (Tamarillo).

Do Tomato Trees Self Pollinate?

Tomato trees are self-pollinating.  This means that their flowers have both a male and a female part, with the male part releasing pollen onto the female part.

bee on flower
Tomato trees are self-pollinating, but bees and other pollinators can still help to improve pollination.

However, remember that self-pollination does not mean guaranteed pollination.  Without wind or pollinators (like bees), the flowers will fail to self-pollinate and then drop off the tree.

Plant flowers to attract bees and other pollinators to your garden.

pink peach flowers
Plant flowers (or trees with flowers, like peaches) to attract pollinators to your garden.

Use a fan to stimulate the flowers if you are growing in a greenhouse.

You can also use a toothbrush to pollinate the flowers.  The vibration of a toothbrush simulates the buzzing of a bee’s wings.

electric toothbrush
You can use an electric toothbrush to pollinate flowers by hand.

How To Take Care Of A Tomato Tree

As mentioned earlier, a tomato tree needs loose, well-draining soil with an ideal pH of 6.1 to 7.8 (slightly acidic to slightly alkaline).  Frost and freezing temperatures will kill branches, so keep them warm (you might not be able to keep them outdoors if you are further north than Zone 9b).

soil
Make sure that your soil is loose and well-draining for tomato trees.

Purdue University suggests planting tomato tree seedlings when they are 2 to 3 inches tall.  If you take cuttings, choose wood that is 1 to 2 years old, 3/8 to 1 inch thick, and 18 to 30 centimeters long.

Flowers may appear in the first year after planting.  You might want to pinch off the flowers in the first year instead of allowing fruit to form.

This will encourage the plant to put energy into root production and branch growth instead of fruit production.

When planting a tomato tree in a windy location, it might make sense to stake the tree as it grows.  This prevents swaying in the wind, which can disturb the shallow roots in a storm.

tomato stake
Use staking to secure and reinforce a tomato tree against wind, since the roots are shallow.

A hedge may also be helpful as a wind break to prevent storms from breaking a tomato tree’s branches (especially when it is carrying lots of fruit).

Mulch can help to retain water in the soil below and avoid drought.

mulch
A layer of mulch helps to retain moisture in soil and avoid drought for your tomato trees.

A layer of mulch can also help to prevent dry soil from blowing away and revealing the shallow roots of a tomato plant.

Pruning a tomato plant is encouraged after the first year of growth and every year afterwards.

pruning shears
Prune a tomato tree after the first year and every year after that.

Where To Buy A Tomato Tree

You can buy a tomato tree (tamarillo) or seeds at the following online stores:

You can also buy tomato tree fruit and try to start seeds yourself.  However, the seeds may not grow true from seed.

This means that you might end up with a different variety than the one you took seeds from.

Conclusion

Now you know a little more about tomato trees (Tamarillo) and how to care for them.  You also know where you can find tomato trees (or their seeds if you want to start your own seedlings).

I hope you found this article helpful.  If so, please share it with someone who can use the information.

If you want to read some of my most popular posts, check out the “Best of GreenUpSide” page here.  Enjoy!

~Jonathon

jonathon.david.madore

Hi, I'm Jon. Let's solve your gardening problems, spend more time growing, and get the best harvest every year!

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