What Is A Litchi Tomato: Information About Thorny Tomato Plants

By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist

Litchi tomatoes, also known as Morelle de Balbis shrub, isn’t standard fare at the local garden center or nursery. It is neither a litchi nor a tomato and is difficult to find in North America. Online suppliers are your best bet for starts or seed. Get to know what is a litchi tomato and then give it a try in your garden.

What is a Litchi Tomato?

The litchi tomato shrub (Solanum sisymbriifolium) was discovered and named by a French botanist. Morelle is the French word for nightshade and Balbis refers to the region of its discovery. This South American species is a member of the nightshade family of plants just as tomatoes, eggplants, and potatoes. The umbrella genus is Solanum and there are varieties that are poisonous if ingested. Litchi tomato and thorny tomato plants are other names for the shrub.

Picture an 8 foot (2 m.) tall, spiny, prickly, thorny weed that is even wider than it is tall. This is the litchi tomato plant. It produces small green pods covered in thorns that enshroud the fruit. Flowers are starry and white, much like eggplant blooms. Fruits are cherry red and shaped like small tomatoes with a point on one end. The interior of the fruit is yellow to creamy gold and filled with tiny flat seeds.

Try growing litchi tomatoes as a barrier and use the fruits in pies, salads, sauces, and preserves. Thorny tomato plants need similar growing conditions to their cousins.

Growing Litchi Tomatoes

Litchi tomatoes are best started indoors six to eight weeks before the last frost. They require a long growing season and soil temperatures at least 60 degrees F. (16 C.). These thorny tomato plants have little cold tolerance and thrive in hot, sunny locations.

Seeds may be purchased at novelty nurseries or rare seed trusts. Use a seed flat with good starter mix. Sow seeds under ¼-inch (6 mm.) soil and keep the flat in a warm area at least 70 degrees F. (21 C.). Keep soil moderately moist until germination, then increase moisture levels slightly for seedlings and never let them dry out. Thin the seedlings and transplant them to small pots when they have at least two pairs of true leaves.

When growing litchi tomatoes, treat them in the same manner you would a tomato plant. Transplant them out at least 3 feet (1 m.) apart in well-drained soil in a sunny, protected area of the garden. Incorporate rotted organic material to soil to improve soil quality prior to planting.

Litchi Tomato Care

  • Since litchi tomato care is similar to other members of the nightshade family, most gardeners can successfully grow thorny tomatoes. The plants take well to pruning and should be grown in cages or well staked.
  • The plant isn’t ready to produce until 90 days after transplant, so start it early enough for your zone.
  • Watch for similar pests and diseases that afflict tomato plants, such as potato beetles and tomato worms.
  • In warm zones, the plant will tend to reseed itself and may even overwinter, but gets a woody stem and even thicker thorns. Therefore, it is probably a good idea to save seed and plant anew annually.

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Green Deane’s ITEMIZED Plant Profile: Litchi Tomato

IDENTIFICATION: Solanum sisymbriifolium is an annual or perennial erect to about a yard to one meter in height. The stem and branches are sticky, hairy, and armed with flat, yellow-orange spines up to half inch (15mm) in length. The oval to lance shaped thorny leaves have stems a half inch to two inches long (1-6cm) and are hairy above and below with stellate and glandular hairs. The leaves are pinnately divided into four to six coarse lobes and may be up to 15 inches long (40cm) and half as wide. Flowers emerge from the foliage and are internodal, unbranched racemes composed of one to ten perfect (staminate) flowers. The five-parted flowers are white, light blue, or mauve, about an inch (3cm) in diameter, and have a hairy calyx a quarter of an inch (5-6 mm) long. They smell like fish. The fruit is a red, succulent, globular berry from a half inch to an inch (12-20 mm) in diameter with pale yellow seeds.

TIME OF YEAR: Similar to tomatoes depending on the climate.

ENVIRONMENT: Similar to a tomato, rich soil, ample sun, moderate, steady watering. Treat them like a tomato except set them out a bit later when its warmer. In exchange they fruit a little longer. The Litchi Tomato is found along roadsides, waste places, landfills, and disturbed fields. A good place to look in farming country in around manure piles or compost bins. In Australia it likes eucalyptic woodlands

METHOD OF USE: Like tomatoes. A healthy plant will produce about a quart of fruit each. Some folks like to put them thought a sieve to remove the seeds. From a culinary point of view they respond well to some sweetness which then gives them a sweet and sour appeal. Surprisingly I could not find the plant mentioned in Cornucopia II, which is kind of the forager’s Bible for edible plants around the world.

Hot and Spicy Litchi Tomato Chutney: Recipe from Mother Earth News

Four cups green tomatoes, sliced into small shreds, measure after slicing ? 2 1?2 cups whole Litchi tomatoes, hulls removed ? 6 dates, seeded and coarsely chopped ?4 garlic cloves, each sliced into 4 pieces ?lengthwise ?zest of 2 limes ?1 tbsp or more hot pepper, finely minced ?1/2 cup white vinegar ?2 tsp mustard seed, crushed to meal-like consistency ?1 tsp fennel seed, preferably Indian Lucknow fennel ?1/2 tsp ground cinnamon ?1 tsp cumin seed? 1 cup green raisins ?1 cup chopped mango or under-ripe peach ?1 cup slivered almonds ?2 1?2 cups honey or 3 cups sugar.
Combine all ingredients in a deep pan and cook over medium-high heat for 20 minutes, or until thick. Remove from the heat and lift out the fruit mixture with a slotted spoon and put it into hot, sanitized preserve jars standing in hot water. Reduce the remaining syrup over high heat until thick like honey, and then pour this over the hot fruit and seal. Allow to mellow two weeks before using. Yields approximately four 12-ounce jars.

Lychee can be maintained as small patio trees in warmer climes or grown into 35- or 40-foot trees in the ground. In pots, the plants should be repotted every spring until they reach your maximum growing size. To help keep the plant smaller, aggressively prune the main growing trunks annually to encourage a smaller, bushier plant.

Lychee is typically propagated commercially by air-layering. This a sophisticated technique where growers make a cut into a thin branch and then surround it with a packet of moist moss or soil. Roots will form in the cut area, allowing the grower to cut off the whole branch and plant it as a small tree.

A home grower is more likely to start lychee from seed. To sprout seeds, cover them with potting soil, keep warm and moist, and wait for sprouts to emerge (which can take weeks). Once they've sprouted, move to a sunnier spot after a few weeks.

Start: Start tomatoes indoors 6-8 weeks before last frost. Use a quality seed starting mix and grow under grow lights or in a very sunny, warm window. Plant seeds ¼” deep and keep soil moist. Harden off seedlings in a sheltered outdoor place for one week. Transplant after danger of frost. Seedlings should be planted 30-48” apart in rows 3-4’ apart.

Transplant: Plant outdoors when nighttime lows reach 60°F or higher.

Water: Tomatoes require plenty of water, 1-2” per week. Ensure watering is steady as tomatoes can crack and split if they receive a lot of water after a dry stretch.

Light: Full sun.

Soil: Plant in rich organic soil. pH 6.0-6.8

Fertilize: An all-purpose, balanced fertilizer will do well for tomatoes. Use according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. If you find your tomatoes have very lush, green vegetation but are not setting fruit, switch to a fertilizer with little or no nitrogen.

Harvest: Harvest tomatoes when they are as ripe as possible, fully colored and firm. Make sure to pick regularly to avoid overloading the plant. At the end of the season when a frost is imminent, all remaining tomatoes can be picked and ripened in a paper bag or on a sunny window sill.

Notes: Place stakes or cages at the time of planting to avoid damaging the plants’ roots.

Learn About Growing Litchi Tomatoes - garden

Compost-Powered Hot Tub, Backyard Pepper Plantation, Building Community with Tomatoes, Figs and Citrus in PA, Litchi Tomato

Welcome. I’m Steven Biggs, a farm, food, and garden writer and speaker. I share stories about the food chain. I look at how food is grown, harvested, and processed—and how it makes its way to our plates through the retail chain. This is my newsletter. Thank you for your interest in what I do.

Welcome. I’m Steven Biggs, a farm, food, and garden writer and speaker. I share stories about the food chain. I look at how food is grown, harvested, and processed—and how it makes its way to our plates through the retail chain. This is my newsletter. Thank you for your interest in what I do.


Microbe-Powered Hot Tub

Tom Bartel is a big proponent of firing up the soil using compost. Tom gardens in the high desert of Colorado, at an elevation of 6,500’ (1,980 m). His growing season is only about 130 days, but from his 1300-square-foot garden (120 square metres), he harvests over 1,000 pounds (454 kg) of produce every year.

I learned about Tom’s work when I stumbled on his video about using microbes to heat a hot tub. Tom explains that he started the hot tub a proof-of-concept project, having read about using decomposing wood-chips to heat houses and greenhouses.

As the wood chips decompose, the inside of the pile heats up to 140-150°F (60-65°C). Tom says that with a batch of wood chips, a hot tub can be kept at 104-108°F (40-42°C) for 18 months—through 2 Colorado winters. After a couple of years, the wood chips have decomposed and feed his garden. Not bad for wood chips diverted from the waste stream! Click here to hear our interview with Tom on the August episode of The Garage Gardeners Show.

Summer Garden Visits

Claus Nader grows potted peppers on his balcony, deck, and in his backyard

This summer my daughter Emma and I visited a few of the gardeners we have chatted with on The Garage Gardeners Radio Show.

In August we dropped in to visit Claus Nader in Toronto. Claus is the owner of East York Chile Peppers.

His specialty is growing peppers in containers. He grows specialty peppers, saves seeds, and makes hot sauces, pickled peppers, jams, salsas, and dehydrated peppers. Despite the space and shade limitations of a fairly small urban yard, Claus manages to fit in about 130 pepper plants…all in containers, all hand watered! Of course…we came home with a few seeds to try in our own garden next year. If you want pepper inspiration, listen to Claus’ tips on the June episode of The Garage Gardeners Show.

Emma met our driveway-tomato-garden mentor Craig LeHoullier

We took a family road trip to North Carolina, which was the opportunity to meet more guests from the show. First we dropped in to visit tomato expert Craig LeHoullier in Raleigh, North Carolina. Craig is the author of a book we love, Epic Tomatoes. His driveway tomato garden and his passion for growing and breeding tomatoes is really inspiring. Craig has been an amazing mentor to Emma as she fills our own driveway here in Toronto with tomato plants. Click here to tune into our chat with Craig LeHoullier about straw-bale gardening and tomatoes on The Garage Gardeners Show.

Hanging out at Brie’s inspiring tomato-tasting

After meeting Craig, we went to see Brie Arthur, author of the book Foodscape Revolution. Brie has a tomato-tasting event every August…which was actually what inspired our road trip. It was fantastic: people mingling, live music in the background, and people strolling the pathways and exploring her gardens. As for the tomato tasting, first, guests line up for sandwich fixings (bacon, tomato, mayo, etc.) and then head to a big table with baskets of labelled tomatoes, cutting boards, and knives to cut off juicy slabs of tomato to complete the sandwiches. Brie’s use of edible plants in a landscape is inspiring…and a tomato tasting was a wonderful way to share that with so many people. Food is a great way to bring people together—and Brie is building community one tomato at a time! Click here to tune into our chat with Brie about growing edibles and foodscaping on The Garage Gardeners Show.

Lemons on Down the Garden Path

I was delighted to join hosts Joanne Shaw and Matthew Dressing on their radio show Down the Garden Path to talk about growing lemons in cold climates. I was even more delighted when I found out that Gary, their producer, was listening in…and got himself a lemon tree after the show! Click here to tune into the lemon episode.

Speaking of lemons, I’m excited to announce that my book Grow Lemons Where You Think You Can’t is now available as an e-book.

The paperback version is available on my website and on Amazon.

Looking for a fun gift for a gardener? What about a signed book with a message inside. Order through my website and send me a note to let me know what message you would like me to write inside.


From Bedding Plants to Figs in PA

John Biberich from Wolfcreek Farms in Grove City Pennsylvania used to grow bedding plants. But as the market for bedding plants changed, he decided it was time to change too. John and his wife, Sue, now grow figs and citrus in their greenhouses. Click here to tune into the June episode of The Garage Gardeners Show and hear my chat with John.


Litchi tomato. Photo by Emma Biggs

From Harrowsmith Jr.: Litchi Tomato has Amazing Flavour (and Lots of Prickles!)

Here is a tomato relative to try out on friends who don’t like tomatoes. Just don’t tell them that it has “tomato” in its name. I have friends who don’t like fresh tomatoes, but love this fantastic fruit!

I love litchi tomato for its flavour. But it is prickly. Don’t grow it too close to the pathway, because its prickles will grab you.

Prickly and Mean

When I first saw this tomato relative, also known as Morelle de Balbis (or Solanum sisymbriifolium if you’re into Latin names) my tour guide at the trial garden I was visiting described it as “thorny and mean.” I agree, it can be mean, so I make sure to leave lots of space when I’m working nearby! (At a distance, though, they are really quite beautiful.)

Walk too close and it will snag your clothes! The stems, leaves, even the underside, and the husks on the dark-red fruits, all have sharp, pointy prickles on them. When I cleaned up the garden last fall, I wore gloves and a long-sleeve shirt when I removed my litchi tomato plants. Click here to read the rest of Emma’s blog post about litchi tomatoes for Harrowsmith magazine.

Kids Gardening Videos

Emma and her friend Ty in Pennsylvania have been busy sharing their love of gardening and cooking in another season of videos for kids on their channel From Dirt to Dishes. Here are some of Emma’s gardening videos. Please share, subscribe, and help inspire more kids to garden!


Grow Lemons Where You Think You Can’t

Hurray! My book Grow Lemons Where You Think You Can’t is now available as an e-book. Want to look inside? Click here.

Or click the picture of it to find out about getting a paperback copy.

Gardening with Emma

We have been getting a lot of great feedback about Gardening with Emma. Emma just received this heartwarming note:

“We have been inspired to plan our own gardens for next summer by your Gardening With Emma book, which was given to us by our Grandma. (She has a huge garden with both flowers and vegetables). We just looked up where to buy some cucamelon seeds, and are looking forward to planting them next spring.”


Garage Gardeners Show

Our guests share tips on how to push garden boundaries. Live on Reality Radio 101, 2 pm ET, the first Wednesday of every month. Previous episodes are on the web page and Apple Podcasts. We cover subjects ranging from veg in the Yukon, edible flowers, container gardening, backyard chickens, year-round herbs, northern nuts, figs in the north, passive solar greenhouses, fruit on the prairies, straw-bale gardening, and year-round veg gardening.

Watch the video: Litchi Tomatoes - cute name, evil thorns! September 2018

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