Solanum betaceum

Plant of the month: February

Solanum betaceum

Also known as: tree tomato, tamarillo

Family: Solanaceae (potato and tomato family)

Native to: Bolivia or NW Argentina

Blooms: Spring to summer. Fruits summer to winter.

Habitats: subtropical forests

Where to find it at the BBG&G: Subtropical House

This tender shrub or small tree grows to four metres in height and produces fruit resembling egg- shaped tomatoes. The skin tastes bitter but the flesh is sweet.  It has been long cultivated in Peru for these fruits which can be processed to make juice, jam, chutneys, curries, sauces, and flavourings for ice-cream. It is also edible raw, but unripe fruits are slightly toxic. These fruits mature from self-pollinating, white, star shaped flowers, which are similar to those of the potato or tomato. However in contrast, the tamarillo leaves are huge and are simple in shape, not divided. In New Zealand, about 2,000 tons are produced on 200 hectares of land and exported to the United States, Japan and Europe. Tree tomatoes are easily propagated by seed or cuttings in spring and grow extremely fast. With regular potting they can attain a height of 2 metres in the first year! It is possible to grow them in a large tub stood outside for the summer. When the fruits form in the autumn, the whole tub must be then brought inside a conservatory or heated greenhouse for the winter as they don’t like temperatures below freezing. Or of course do what we do- choose the easy option and grow them in a warm greenhouse!