Helen McKerralHow to grow tamarillo or tree tomato

The tamarillo (Cyphomandra betacea) must surely be the most under-rated and under-planted fruit tree in my region… and yet it is unfussy, extremely fast-growing and bears delicious fruit (peel the rind after dunking in boiling water for 3 minutes, or halve fresh and scoop out the inside). The red cultivars are tart – ideal for preserves, pies, salads and desserts, whereas the orange ones are lovely eaten fresh as well.

Delicious tamarillos

Delicious tamarillos

Many people substitute them for tomatoes in savoury sauces. I haven’t tasted the yellow variety but have been told it’s sweeter again, without the acidic tang of other cultivars.

My hubby reckons the flavour is between kiwifruit and passionfruit; I think there’s a hint of mango in there as well. Certainly it has a kind of sassy mixed fruit salad sour kinda taste!

The trees are prone to various diseases and are therefore relatively short-lived in home gardens but, because they fruit within two years of planting, that doesn’t matter – just pop in another one every few years as the first starts to wane, and you’ll have a continuous supply!

Another thing I like about this tree is that it fruits in winter: June to July in my area, when all the summer and autumn fruits have finished. The glowing fruit look beautiful on the tree, in itself an attractive plant with large, velvety leaves. The leaves smell like cat urine when brushed but the small, unobtrusive mauve flowers have a delightful vanilla scent.

The tree is small – just a two to three metres high here in temperate South Australia, so it easily fits into most gardens. It strikes easily from cuttings. According to plantsman Peter Taverna, a handy quirk is that cuttings taken from plants that have not yet fruited develop into single-stemmed trees with clear trunks, whereas cuttings taken from plants that have already fruited become multi-stemmed bushes. Talk about versatile! However, if taking cuttings, make sure old plants aren’t virus-affected.

Ripening tamarillos on my tree

Ripening tamarillos on my tree

In its second year of bearing, my tamarillo produced about 10 kg of fruit, without any special fertilising other than a few handfuls of Sudden Impact and composted chicken manure in spring, and a rather miserly watering regime. With more generous cultivation, trees can bear 15 – 20 kg of fruit.

Tamarillos are native to tropical South America but, because they grow at alpine altitudes, are resistant to light frosts. They will need winter protection only in very cold areas of Australia.

The trees are relatively brittle and sensitive to wind. Even though my plant is in a sheltered area, the tree developed a lean and has been propped up with a stake while it’s fruiting. Again, this might be a major problem with a single long-lived tree, but not when I already have a second plant ready to come into production next year.

Tamarillo harvest from the garden

Tamarillo harvest from the garden

Plant tamarillos in a sunny, sheltered position with perfect drainage. It’s in the tomato family, members of which can be prone to various soil-borne diseases, so try to avoid planting into areas where you’ve grown spuds, tomatoes, capsicums etc. Improve heavy soils with gypsum and cheap potting mix. My trees have had few pests other than a few aphids; not worth spraying.

They are available at various garden centres, and they are not expensive to buy. At the nursery where I work, they retail for about $14.00 in small pots (don’t bother buying advanced plants, because they are so fast-growing).

What are you waiting for?


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Helen McKerral

About Helen McKerral

Horticultural journalist, photographer, contributor to many garden magazines, and author of 'Gardening on a Shoestring'. Adelaide Hills, South Australia

21 thoughts on “How to grow tamarillo or tree tomato

  1. I’ve tried growing these – very unsuccessfully I might say. In the Adelaide Hills. Yes, they grow fast but I only got 3 fruits to ripen on 2 trees. They are in pots in a very sheltered position against the house behind a water tank and yet got blown over constantly. So the blooms were getting constantly smashed. They needed almost constant watering in the miserable summer we had last year…I suppose I could try planting them in the ground but I can’t think of any place that would be sheltered enough – maybe in a shed ;}

    • Wow, that surprises me, Lynn, because of course I’m in the Adelaide Hills too, on a SW slope. They are not really pot plants. They are TREES (albeit small) and have such large leaves and rapid growth that not only would the plants blow over in pots, but the transpiration rate in our summer would be impossible for the roots to meet in any restricted pot. It would also be difficult to meet the nutrient requirements; and stems tend to be weaker in pots. So please, try just once more: in the ground, and in spring. As you’re local, feel free to drop into Crafers Garden Centre for a chat so we can work out your site specific requirements.

      My garden is indeed very sheltered but a *loose* figure of eight stocking tied to two stakes either side of the stem may help in windier spots (it’s the movement of the stem and plant that strengthen both it and its root system, even for notoriously brittle plants like tamarillo). My plants are in the ground – go to my past post on transplanting to see soil preparation: How to Transplant Fruit Trees for some basics that have worked with 100% success in my garden.

      Good luck, Lynn – tamarillos are delicious, fast and worth another try!

      • Hey Helen – thanks so much for getting back to me so quickly. I may just drop in on you at Crafers on my way home to Wistow. I really do enjoy your Adelaide Hills articles. Keep up the good work!

  2. This is one of my only successful plants in my edible garden (Melbourne). I invented a salad with brown lentils, parsley, feta, chopped almonds and orange tamarillo. I thought it was divine. It might not be, but I grew it myself, so it was perfect

  3. I had a tamarillo in a half wine barrel which struggled to produce fruit so I tipped the barrel over and pulled out the plant and replanted in the ground against a stone wall which cops Southerly winds. Anyway the tree survived and reshot new leaves and is now doing well.

    • Great! To be honest, I dislike half wine barrels even though they look terrific. I have seen far too many instances of precious plants lost because barrels have been allowed to dry out, so the staves shrink and the cracks between them make it almost impossible to re-wet. Eventually the hoops fall off and the barrel disintegrates.

    • Hi Norman. Tamarillos are small trees and short-lived, so pruning to size is not really an issue. The main reason for pruning is to control overly long branches with excessive weight at the tips when fruiting; this can cause branches to snap. A light prune in early spring after frost helps prevent this. It also delays fruiting somewhat and can be used to manage cropping times to harvest fruit later in winter. Hard pruning or pruning at the wrong time of year can set back the tree considerably or even cause it to languish permanently.

  4. have 30 odd seedlings and 5 cuttings { 4 just transplanted} all from fruit of 1 tree..largest cutting 35 cm high with a no. of branches. Immature flower heads.

  5. Was given one by a neighbour in a pot . It grew ,it withered , it almost died! So after 2 years I got tired of trying to nurse it and dug whole in my garden and planted it ! 18 months later 5kg of fruit reddish green in colour but oh what a flavour! Going to save some seeds and get some more going to give away to family n friends.
    Just like tomatoes you will need a sheltered spot and occasionally pinch back off shoots . It also suggested to prune it (as mentioned on different web sites ) but I’ve not gotten enough courage to do that yet . Plant one and enjoy the fruit of your labour!

    • Hello Carol
      Could be a number of things but you have not given enough detail to be sure. In warm, humid weather, tamarillos can get fungal diseases such as mildew that cause leaves to blacken. Sulphur or copper sprays work as preventatives – follow directions on container. Aphid attack (usually farmed by ants) can cause sooty mould – spray with pest oil or Natrasoap.

  6. Can you please tell me why my tamarillo has flowered beautifully, with the first fruit starting to appear, and for about two weeks I have been watching the fruit but two days ago I went out and my first fruit had dropped off. The flowers are dropping off as well. They are sheltered from the wind in a morning sun position and are mulched. What am I doing wrong? The plants are covered in flowers and are about four to five foot tall. I am in Queensland.

    • Hello Marie!

      I’m afraid I’m not certain why that’s happening. If the fruit are tiny when they drop, it may be a pollination issue. Not all flowers will form fruit – only a small percentage will – so that could also be why they’re dropping. My tamarillo is nowhere near flowering so the seasons are certainly different up your way?

      Hot conditions can cause flowers on many plants to abort, espacially when combined with dry soil.

      Not sure how old your plants are but they are fast growing so I assume just a year or two old? It could be the maturity of the tree.

      Finally, inconsistent watering can cause fruit to drop. Water deeply and regularly, rather than daily light sprinkles.

      Good luck!

      • Hi Helen thank you for replying and sorry I have not replied before now. I managed to get some Tamarillos off one plant very small and were just yummy but now the tree has died so will now start again. My tree was about two years old I do have some I have grown from seed that are just starting to flower so fingers crossed.

      • Hi Claire
        Thank you for replying I had forgotten that I had posted on this site and was just having a look at pages I have saved. Yes I have been putting potassium sulphate on but maybe not enough. But thank you for replying sorry its taken me so long to answer

  7. You say they are a small tree! The one in the Hobart botanic gardens is 8 meters tall and about 5 meters wide. The branches are very woody and strong. Today it’s covered in fruit, I couldn’t help myself and brought one home, delicious.
    To grow, can I just put a couple of the fresh seeds in a potting mix in a warm damp spot in the sun? If so how deep do I sow them please?

  8. Hi Marie i have a tamarillo that is around 3 years old and is only just starting to fruit for the first time i’m wondering if i can grow another tree from a cutting or should i use seeds if cuttings do i place them in a sunny position or shady and how long does it take

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