From the Archives
of the Rare Fruit Council of Australia, inc.
by Dick Endt
All in the Family - The Tamarillo and its Relatives
The tamarillo is one of those plants that have found its way to
NZ without much fuss or fanfare. Originally known as the tree tomato,
it was first listed in the nursery catalogue of D. Hayes & Sons
back in 1891, almost 100 years ago.
The first small, commercial
plantings appeared in the Mangere district near Auckland with the
earliest plantings being the yellow varieties. Later, the red form
appeared, and over the years has proved the most popular.
likely introduced from India, where the fruit is well-known, the
tamarillo is actually native to the Andean region of South America. It
can be found from Venezuela to as far south as Argentina and is a
typical fruit of the Andean highlands.
growing of the tamarillo started before the Second World War, and
scarcity of imported winter fruits during the war years provided an
impetus in demand for the tamarillo in NZ.
The attractive prices
received by tamarillo growers encouraged increased plantings and
availability of fruits on the market. Since then, the tamarillo has
become well established in the fruit shops and obviously enjoyed by New
Zealanders. During the early sixties, when tamarillos were being
exported to Australia and Canada, the name Tree Tomato was seen as
unsuitable for promotional purposes. 'Tamarillo' was coined in 1967 and
is now internationally accepted - even in South America where the fruit
was formerly known as 'Tomate de arbol'.
The tamarillo is
usually propagated from seed. Growers who grow their own plants select
seed from their best fruiting trees, a practice which has resulted in
the development of larger, more superior fruits. In fact, fruit
selections in NZ are the best in the world. The tamarillo type grown in
its native South America is actually small and often of poor quality.
tamarillo needs little description in NZ. Sown from seed, it will
rapidly grow into an attractive, shrub-like bushy tree with large,
green, pungent-smelling leaves. The plant will start flowering in its
second growing season, and the sweet scent of its flowers alone makes
it worth having in the garden.
Flowering takes place over an
extended period of time from late spring until as late as the month of
May, with fruit developing soon after flowering. As the green fruits
approach maturity, they turn dull purple in colour then a bright, shiny
red at full maturity, with fruits maturing in succession from late
March until October.
In the home garden, the tamarillo requires a nearly frost-free climate and free-draining soils high in organic matter.
most proven export variety of red tamarillo is 'Oratia Round', a
selection made in the Oratia district about 20 years ago. Other
selections have appeared since, and modern tissue culture propagation
methods are used to multiply trees of a uniform type.
One of the
most interesting new tamarillos to have appeared in recent years is a
pure yellow form, an entirely freak tree which lacks the red pigments
which make up the red fruit. Instead, the fruits are yellow - as yellow
as a lemon.
By sheer coincidence, I encountered a similar type
of tamarillo growing in Ecuador, but these trees were evolved from the
yellow tamarillo; a yellow tamarillo still has a lot of red pigment in
its leaves and fruit. So now we have a yellow tamarillo which tastes
like a red one, and a very similar tamarillo which tastes like an
orange-yellow fruit. The Ecuadorean fruit is locally known as 'Oro del
Another recent introduction from Ecuador is a normal
yellow strain known as 'Columbia round', the fruits of which are of
course, round. The tree itself is dwarfed, making it more resistant to
wind, and harvesting is more efficient.
From Argentina, we have
a very good red-fruited form which is very sweet, and in my opinion
much better than the regular red, or the yellow for that matter. While
the fruits are not as large as on some of our NZ selections, its good
flavour makes this strain outstanding.
The tamarillo is
botanically known as Cyphomandra betaceae (Sendt) and belongs to the
Solanaceae family, the same genus to which the potato, tomato, tobacco
and peppers belong. All the Cyphomandra species originate in the
neotropics, and to this day most of them are little known. The only
reference to many of the species may be found in botanical literature.
In South America, nearly all of these plants can only be found growing
in the wild.
During some of my plant exploring trips in the
Andes, I have encountered two species, both of which received a
botanical description only in very recent times.
(Cyphomandra casana) was totally unknown when I encountered it growing
in the mist forest of the Andes at 2,500 metres. Seeds of the Casana
were introduced here in 1977. The name 'Casana' we coined ourselves for
lack of an existing name.
The Casana grows well in NZ,
preferring a cool, moist climate and semi-shade, and is intolerant of
both heat and frosts. It seems best-suited to areas like Taranaki,
Nelson, and the West Coast, in areas where little or no frosts occur.
The tree of the Casana is very similar to the tamarillo, with leaves of
a dull green and tomentose (furry). The flowers are lilac. The fruit is
also similar in shape to the tamarillo but is dull yellow, somewhat
smaller, but more numerous on the tree. The flavour, though, is very
unlike the tamarillo. It could be described as reminiscent of the scent
of peach and passionfruit. The fruit is rather soft and quality is
variable, although selection and breeding of this wild plant may result
in a very interesting new commercial fruit.
In Ecuador the Casana has now become endangered, as much of its forest habitat is being destroyed by fire.
Chambala (Cyphomandra sp. - probably in the hartweggii tribe) is
another plant very new to the developed world. In fact, I think this is
the first time details of it have ever been published. Travelling in
Ecuador during 1988, the Chambala was discovered growing near the
roadside in recently cleared jungle. As new roads are pushed through
the last remaining forest, new plant species still come to light. How
many species useful to man are being destroyed is impossible to tell.
three years before I visited this area, the only access was on
horseback. In contrast to the Casana, the Chambala grows at much lower
altitudes where near-tropical conditions occur. It's named after the
district in which it was found, a broad valley of the Guayllalamba
river on the Western slopes of the Andes. The tree itself is
tamarillo-like, but much taller, with some trees growing as high as 5m.
The fruits hang on what seem like strings, or long pendulous racemes.
The size of an egg and pointed at one end, the fruits are green in
colour, turning to yellow at maturity.
The only fruit I tasted
was not ripe, so I couldn't get a good idea of flavour, but the first
New Zealand fruits of the Chambala are ripening at Oratia at the
moment, and hopefully will survive the prolonged rains of August. A few
seeds were introduced in NZ in 1988.
During our warmer months
the Chambala grows well. It survived the first winter and during the
second growing season blossomed and set fruit (growing outside) . This
winter, the trees were rather set back by adverse climatic conditions.
The fruits are hanging on though, so I hope for the best. Obviously the
Chambala is going to be more tender than the tamarillo, but it's a
plant with some potential.
The Colombian Mountain Tomato
(Cyphomandra hartwegii) is one of the few Cyphomandra species that is
known in the country of origin, and is grown mostly in gardens and
backyards. Botanically, it is allied to the Chambala, although it is an
entirely different plant. It grows in Colombia at the same altitude
levels as tamarillo.
The Colombian Mountain Tomato is a robust
shrub growing as tall as 4m. In its juvenile stage, the large leaves
are lobed, then, as the flowering stage is reached, the leaves become
cordate and very similar to those of the tamarillo. The flowers are
greenish in colour and very numerous. The fruit sets over a short
period of time and is rather bitter, becoming edible only at full
maturity. In Columbia, they're made into jams and jellies. We have some
trees growing on Great Barrier Island which are producing a lot of
fruit. The tree is very ornamental when young and well worth growing
for that reason alone.
There are other Cyphomandra species
growing in New Zealand too. Cyphomandra meridensis is a rather small
shrubby plant with small blue flowers. The fruit are rather like Casana
but smaller and the tree does not thrive here.
fragrans. A small, rather woody shrub with marble-sized fruit, is
useful only as an ornamental, although it might be used as rootstock
Cyphomandra corymbiflora. Ornamental only.
Cyphomandra costaricensis is very similar to the tamarillo, and is said
to be a wild form. It may be used as a rootstock for tamarillo to
overcome nematode problems.
There may be still others in this
country, but I haven't seen them. What is certain is that there are
still many more named Cyphomandras in South America, and perhaps more
unnamed ones as well. Many of them possibly at risk as their native
habitat is destroyed. Further exploration may well yield some
outstanding possibilities for the future.