Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere


Solanum betaceum

Tree tomato, Dutch eggplant

By Scott Sheu

            Once commonly called the “tree tomato,” this fruit’s current name is actually made up: “tamarillo” was invented by New Zealand businessmen to prevent confusion with the actual tomato.  Though they are decidedly different plants, the tomato and tamarillo do indeed share similar appearances, from their smooth, glossy skin to their bright colors,

Geographical Description

            Not much is known about the history of the tamarillo, though it is considered to have originated in the Andes, which stretches down Peru, Chile, Ecuador, and Bolivia. It has never been found in the wild, but has been introduced throughout and naturalized throughout South America.  Though it has been introduced to many subtropical environments throughout the world, the tamarillo has been treated as more of a garden plant and has been rarely grown on a large scale.  One exception is New Zealand, where it was introduced in the 1800s.  However, it wasn’t until World War II, when there was a fruit shortage that the country began producing the tamarillo as an important commercial crop.  It has also gained recent commercial interest in Portugal, California, and Australia.

Biological Description

            The tamarillo is a small shrub that grows around 10-18 feet tall.  It has thinly heart-shaped leaves that have a musky smell and soft hairy texture to them.  The leaves are evergreen and grow anywhere from 4-13 ½ inches long and 1 ½ to 4 ¾ inches wide (Morton).  The pink tamarillo flowers grow in loose clusters at the tips of branches. 

            The fruit of the tamarillo resembles a tomato.  It has long stalks and sometimes grows in clusters.  It is oval shaped and grows 2-4 inches long.  Its smooth and glossy skin comes in a variety of colors, ranging from purple to red to pale yellow.  The flesh can also have a color anywhere between bright orange and pale yellow.  Like the tomato, it has juicy pulp that holds its white seeds, which are larger and flatter than tomato seeds.  In dark fruits, the pulp is black while it takes on a red-orange color in lighter fruits (Morton).

Culinary Usage

            The tamarillo has a tangy and mildly sweet taste; some have said that it has notes of passion fruit and tomato.  When consuming the tamarillo, it is customary to avoid the skin, which is tough and has an off-putting aftertaste.  Instead, the tamarillo is consumed fresh by simply halving the fruit and scooping the insides out.  It can also be immersed in boiling water to remove the skin.  Sometimes the fruit is sprinkled with sugar or grilled before being consumed.  Though most people purport that the tomato and tamarillo taste and smell nothing alike, the tamarillo is still used similarly to its lookalike. Indeed, the tamarillo sometimes acts as a substitute for the tomato where the latter cannot be grown (Hernandez & Leon). It is especially popular in chutneys and sauces, as well as salads, sandwiches and soups.  The fruit is also used in sweet foods; Morton recommends eating it with a scoop of vanilla ice cream while it is also used in pies and cakes (Morton).

            In South America, the fruit is also blended with milk, sugar, and ice to make a refreshing shake while in New Zealand, the fruit is a crucial component in the stuffing of the national dish, roast lamb (Incas).  Peruvians make a spicy sauce out of the tamarillo and green peppers (Hernandez & Leon).

Other Usages

            In native medicine, the tamarillo fruit is believed to combat anemia and respiratory diseases (Bermejo).  The tamarillo shoots are sometimes put into children’s baths to prevent illness (CRC).



Bohs, Lynn. "Ethnobotany of the Genus Cyphomandra (Solanaceae)." Economc Botany 43.2 (1989). JStor. Web.

Duke, James A., and Judith L. DuCellier. CRC Handbook of Alternative Cash Crops. Boca Raton: CRC, 1993. Print.

Hernández, Bermejo J. Esteban., and J. León. Neglected Crops: 1492 from a Different Perspective. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 1994. Print.

Lost Crops of the Incas: Little-known Plants of the Andes with Promise for Worldwide Cultivation. Washington, D.C.: National Academy, 1989. Print.

Morton, Julia. “Tree Tomato.” Fruits of Warm Climates. Miami: Florida Flair Books, 1987. Web. <>.