If you’re a gardener with a fondness for the unusual, the Litchi Tomato, or Solanum sisymbriifolium, is a must-try this season. Towering up to 5- 8 feet and spreading out to 3-5 feet, it’s far from your average tomato plant, complete with distinctive thorns. Ideal for gardeners who love a bit of novelty in their garden, the Litchi is not only a striking visual addition, but it also bears fruits with a unique flavor profile. The first year I grew them; their towering presence, appearance like something from another world, and the anticipation of tasting the first fruits made my garden an even more exciting place. Let’s explore the fascinating world of this rare and intriguing member of the tomato family.
Origins of the Litchi Tomato
Tracing the roots of the Litchi Tomato is like piecing together a garden mystery. Part of the nightshade family, its exact origins have gardeners curious. Many believe it hails from South America, suited as it is to drier climates. Yet, there’s talk of its presence in the South Pacific too. This blend of histories, much like the plant’s own blend of flavors and textures, adds to its intrigue and widespread appeal in gardens across various regions.
Interestingly, the Litchi Tomato has been grown in gardens for at least 200 years and has gained popularity in heirloom gardening circles. It is known by various names in different parts of the world, such as Morelle de Balbis in France and Vila Vila in Latin America. Its diversity of names and widespread cultivation further contribute to the mystery of its exact origins.
This plant’s unique characteristics, like its tall and bushy stature, covered in prickles, make it a fascinating addition to gardens. Its history, stretching back to seed catalogs from the 19th century, adds an exotic allure to its profile. Despite the unclear specifics of its origins, the Litchi Tomato’s journey from either South America or the South Pacific to gardens worldwide is a testament to its adaptability and the curiosity it inspires among gardeners and plant enthusiasts.
Characteristics of the Litchi Tomato
When you plant a Litchi Tomato, prepare for a grand display. These plants can soar to heights of 8-10 feet, creating a lush, bushy spectacle. But be warned, they come armed with thorns that are more than just for show – they’re pretty sharp!
They cover the entire plant – every single part! I wear heavy work gloves and long sleeves when working with or around the Litchi tomato plants in our garden. They’re worth the extra effort in appearance, and flavor! I love my garden sleeves especially when working with the Litchis.
In the world of garden plants, the Litchi Tomato stands out with its extraordinary blooms. These flowers, about two inches wide, present a delightful array of ruffled petals in gentle shades of white and soft purple. At their heart, bright yellow anthers form a striking contrast, almost like a little sunburst nestled within each bloom.
The blooms of the Litchi Tomato are not just a feast for the eyes, but they also play a crucial role in the garden, attracting pollinators with their vibrant display. When these flowers are in full swing, they bring a lively buzz to the gardens, standing out boldly among the plant’s thorny defenses.
Watching the Litchi Tomato ripen is like observing a slow dance of colors. It emerges from a husk akin to that of a tomatillo. At first, it’s green, then warms into an inviting orange, teasing us with the promise of what’s to come. And after what seems like forever, it turns to that deep, bright cherry red – that’s when you know it’s ready.
The fruit’s skin is smooth, yet sturdy, a perfect wrapper for the juicy goodness inside. The inside is a deep orange and has lots of seeds. It feels akin to eating a raspberry. Be careful! If you don’t watch it, you’ll eat them all before they make it to the house.
Tips for Growing Litchi Tomatoes
While they share most growing conditions with other tomatoes, their unique characteristics, like thorns, width, and height, require a bit more planning and space in your garden. You can read about other tomato varieties in our dedicated posts.
They take 75-90 days to mature. It thrives best with 8-12 hours of daily sunlight, making it suitable for sunny spots in your garden. You can expect the seeds to sprout within 14-21 days. The ideal temperature range for growing Litchi Tomatoes is between 75-90 Degrees Fahrenheit. It can tolerate hotter temperatures if watered properly. Ours did great with several light frosts and produced until the first hard freeze.
- Start Indoors: Like other members of the nightshade family, begin your Litchi Tomato seeds indoors about 6-8 weeks before the last expected frost.
- Sunlight and Spacing: Once the risk of frost has passed, transplant them outdoors into a spot that receives full sun. Space them about 3 to 5 feet apart to accommodate their growth.
- Soil and Watering: They prefer well-drained soil and consistent watering, but be careful not to over-water.
- Support Structures: Their height, spread, and prickliness make them ideal for less frequented areas of your garden, perhaps along a fence where they won’t be in an area you work in often.
- Supporting them with a cattle panel or a sturdy fence is a wise idea, as it helps them grow upright and show off their full glory. This also makes it easier for you to harvest and cultivate.
- Frost Tolerance: Litchi Tomatoes have a degree of frost tolerance, more so than typical tomato plants, making them suitable for a wider range of climates.
- They’re best planted in USDA Hardiness Zones 9 through 11, where they can be grown as perennials.
- In colder zones, they are usually cultivated as annuals. These plants are notable for their resilience to cooler temperatures.
- They can withstand light frosts and can survive in temperatures down to about 25°F (-4°C). This makes them a good choice for gardeners in areas with shorter growing seasons, offering an extended harvest period compared to traditional tomato varieties.
When it comes to pruning Litchi Tomatoes, gardeners have different approaches. Some prefer to prune them to manage their size and shape, especially since these plants can grow quite large and bushy. Pruning can help in maintaining a more controlled growth and may facilitate easier harvesting.
On the other hand, some gardeners choose not to prune, letting the plants grow naturally. This less hands-on approach can lead to a more sprawling plant, but it requires less maintenance. The decision to prune or not often depends on the gardener’s preference for plant management and the space available in their garden.
In my garden, tending to the Litchi Tomato is a blend of care and strategy. To keep the fruits within easy reach and minimize the battle with their thorns, I prune or crop the top of the plant keeping it at 5 – 6 feet. This simple practice not only saves me from a few too many pricks but also ensures that the delightful fruits don’t escape my grasp or get lost amidst its bushy growth. It’s a little trick that makes harvesting these unique tomatoes more of a joy and less of a challenge.
The Litchi Tomato is relatively resistant to common garden pests, thanks to its prickly nature and the presence of certain compounds in its leaves and stems. However, it’s not entirely immune. You may occasionally encounter issues with tomato hornworms and potato beetles, which seem less deterred by the plant’s natural defenses. You can learn how to deal with hornworms naturally in our dedicated post.
Taste of Litchi Tomatoes
The Litchi Tomato’s delightful taste is something that’s truly cherished in my garden. Its sweet and tangy flavor, akin to a cherry tomato but with its own unique twist, is irresistible. The flavor is described in varied ways, reflecting its unique taste.
Some liken it to a tart cherry, while others notice a subtler, sweeter hint reminiscent of ripe berries. There are even those who detect a faint, refreshing tang, similar to certain tropical fruits. This spectrum of descriptions speaks to the Litchi Tomato’s complex and delightful flavor profile, making it a unique and memorable treat for the palate.
The more time these tomatoes spend on the vine, the sweeter they become. They’re ready when they come away easily from their protective husk – if they don’t, just give them a bit more time. As the seasons shift towards cooler autumn days, these fall-harvested tomatoes often have an extra hint of sweetness, with a more pronounced fruity flavor, making them all the more special.
My granddaughter’s fondness for these tomatoes is a charming illustration of their appeal. She adores them so much that she eagerly snacks on the lower fruits, her face lighting up with each bite. Even though she has me reach for the higher ones, her desire for these sweet treats is not affected by the many pricks she gets when she can’t wait for me.
How to Use Them
The Litchi Tomato is a versatile fruit in the kitchen, offering a unique twist to traditional recipes. Its sweet yet tangy flavor is perfect for fresh eating, straight from the vine – a delight for those who cherish the simple pleasures of gardening. These tomatoes shine in salads, bringing a splash of color and a burst of flavor.
They also excel in homemade preserves, jams, and jellies, capturing the essence of summer. Additionally, their cherry-like taste makes them excellent for baking, especially in pies. My husband was sure I’d made a cherry pie until he cut into it. With the Litchi Tomato, the possibilities in the kitchen are both exciting and delicious.
How to Preserve the Litchi Tomato
Preserving Litchi Tomatoes brings out their unique sweetness, making them a treat throughout the year. Canning is a wonderful way to store these gems. Imagine opening a jar in winter, and adding them to your favorite soup and stew recipes. You can read about how to safely can tomatoes in our dedicated post.
You can freeze them whole or in pieces. Wash them and allow them to dry before cutting them, if you don’t want to freeze them whole, then spread them on a baking sheet and put them in the freezer. Once they’re frozen, transfer them to a freezer-safe container. Label the container with the date and name, and use them within 12 months.
Dehydrating Litchi Tomatoes is our favorite way of preserving them (the ones we manage not to eat right away). Like other produce you dehydrate, the flavor intensifies and the dehydrated Litchi tastes almost like candy! Using a quality dehydrator, you can dry them at 118-120 degrees F. This temperature takes a little longer but it preserves enzymes and nutrition enhancing both flavor and nutritional value. You can use this link to see our favorite dehydrator if you’re looking for one.
Whichever method you choose, each provides a wonderful way to extend the enjoyment of Litchi Tomatoes’ distinct taste.
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Where to Purchase
There aren’t many places I’ve found that carry this seed. When we have to order seeds we have three seed companies we like to order from. We ordered our Litchi Tomato seeds from Baker Creek Rare Seeds. You can read more about who we order seeds from and why in our dedicated post. You can also check with your favorite seed supplier.
The Litchi Tomato is more than just a tomato plant; it’s a delightful addition to any garden with its impressive height, striking blooms, and unique, thorny appearance. As its fruit undergoes a fascinating color transformation, you’ll be left anticipating the sweet and tart flavor with cherry-like notes that’s on its way.
Alongside its visual appeal and taste, the Litchi Tomato is also versatile in the kitchen and can be preserved in various ways, such as canning, freezing, or dehydrating, allowing its summer essence to be savored all year round. This plant’s resilience, adaptability, and the joy it brings to both gardeners and food lovers alike make it a truly cherished choice.
Growing Litchi Tomatoes requires some specific care to ensure they flourish. Providing support is key, so using a cattle panel or a fence line can be an effective way to help these plants grow upright, especially considering their potential to reach impressive heights.
Additionally, it’s wise to be cautious around the plant’s prickles. Strategically placing them along less-used areas of your garden can reduce the chance of accidental pricks. With these tips and regular gardening practices like proper watering and ensuring full sun exposure, your Litchi Tomatoes will be a unique and fruitful addition to your garden. Happy Gardening!
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