Litchi Tomato

Foraging is a treasure hunt because with perhaps 6,000 edible species in North America there is always a surprise now and then such as the Litchi Tomato.

The husk (calyx) shrinks as the fruit matures

The husk (calyx) shrinks as the fruit matures

Some people call it a wild tomato, others say it’s naturalized or an escaped crop. Some refer to it as an “heirloom.” Common names include Sticky Nightshade (not at all original)  Morelle de Balbis, and Fire & Ice Plant (I have no idea why.)  It can be found not only in gardens but in the wild around the world. A native of South America, particularly Paraguay, it’s a hardy nightshade that reseeds itself and gets along quite nicely without man’s attention. So even though you may cultivate it, the wandering botanical often strikes out on its own.

Young husk (calyx) with typical yellow/orange thorns.

In North America its distribution is rather unconventional. Going around the rim states of the US it is found from Oregon south and east to West Virginia excluding New Mexico. Then it goes to the mid-Atlantic states skipping Maryland. It is also recorded in Massachusetts and Ontario. You will have to look at specific state maps to identify the counties the Litchi Tomato has been found it. A tough member of a fragile family it can take a light frost even temperatures down to 25F. In warmer climes it overwinters (and gets more spiny!) A bushy indeterminate, it does, however, need more than one plant to cross pollinated.

Blossoms can be white, light blue or mauve.

In its native South America the Litchi Tomato has been used in local dishes since before written records. And most unusual for this genus it has spines yet is still edible. Usually plants in this genus with spines are very toxic if not deadly. This is also why, particularly here in the southern United States, one must not mistake the Horsenettle — Solanum carolinense –for the Litchi Tomato. The results could be much illness if not death. Interestingly, since the Litchi Tomato does have spines (technically prickles*) it has also been use as a hedge around gardens, to keep animals out. It’s also a trap crop for potato cyst nematodes and has been in cultivation in Europe since the 1700s. The plant, however, is banned in South Africa. In Australia it is found in New South Wales, Queensland, Western Victoria and possibly Victoria.

The fruit, red when ripe, is one-half to inch, yellow inside with many seeds.

The fruit develops in a husk (calyx) that is totally covered with spines (unlike the Horsenettle which has spines but no husk.) Then the husk, which is slightly bullet shape, folds back to reveal a bright red cherry-tomato like fruit. Interior flesh is yellow and seeds resemble cherry tomato seeds. Its texture is similar to a raspberry and the taste is tart like a sour cherry. The fruit is ripe when it can be removed easily. If it resists it is not ready to eat.

In small amounts the dried roots, with that basal part of the stem, were used as a diuretic to treat kidney issues and high blood pressure. The roots were also chewed to induce abortions. See Herb Blurb below.

Unripe fruit are slightly bullet shaped

As for the botanical name this is going to be a little confusing.  Part of its name is easy and part difficult. Solanum (so-LAY-num) is the easy part and means sun. Sisymbriifolium ( sis-sim-bree-ee-FOL-lee-um) is more convoluted.  Sisymbrium is from the Greek sisumbrion (σισυμβριον) and means sweet-smelling plant. It’s what Greeks called the bergamot mint. A Tumbleweed Mustard, which is not sweet smelling at all, was named Sisymbrium because the mustard leaves looked similar to the bergamot’s leaves. The Litchi Tomato’s leaves look similar to the Tumbleweed Mustard so it was called Sisymbriifolium, meaning leaves that look like the mustard that look like the bergamot … And botanists think they really make it clear and easy for us mere foraging mortals.

Other common names include: Alco-Chileo (Spanish), arrabenta cavalo, dense-thorn bitter apple (English), doringtamatie (Afrikaans-South Africa), espina colorada (Spanish), fire and ice plant (English), jeweelie (Argentina), joão bravo, jua das queimadas (Portuguese), jua de roca (Portuguese), klebriger nachtschatten (German), litchi tomato (English), liuskakoiso (English), manacader, morelle de balbis (French), mullaca espinudo, ocote mullaca (Spanish), pilkalapis baklazanas (Lithuanian), puca-puca (Spanish), raukenblatt-nachtschatten (Austria), red buffalo-burr (British Isles), revienta caballo (Spanish), sticky nightshade (English-United States, United Kingdom), tomatillo (Spanish), tutia (Spanish), tutia o Espina Colorada, uvilla, viscid nightshade (English-United States, Australia), wild tomato (English), wildetamatie (Afrikaans-South Africa.)

World wide, it is reported in: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, China, Congo Republic, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, North and South Korea, Latvia, Lithuania, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, Spain, Swaziland, Sweden, Taiwan, Turkey, United Kingdom, and the United States.

*Prickles are outgrowths of the epidermis and not modified branches, which are spines.

 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.

Seed source:  $3 at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

 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 
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.

Herb Blurb

J Ethnopharmacol. 2000 Jun;70(3):301-7.
Isolation of hypotensive compounds from Solanum sisymbriifolium Lam.
lbarrola DA, Hellión-lbarrola MC, Montalbetti Y, Heinichen O, Alvarenga N, Figueredo A, Ferro EA.
Pharmacology Department, Faculty of Chemical Sciences, National University of Asuncion, PO Box 1055, Asuncion, Paraguay.
The crude hydroalcoholic root extract (CRE) of Solanum sisymbriifolium Lam. has formerly been shown to have hypotensive activity both in normo-and hypertensive rats. Hypotensive activity-guided fractionation of the CRE was performed in anaesthetized normotensive rats, which led to the isolation of the active principles. The intravenous (i.v.) and intraperitoneal (i.p.) values of the CRE in mice were found to be, respectively, 343 and 451 mg/kg, and no lethal effect was caused by doses up to 5.0 g/kg when administered by oral route. Depression of locomotion, increase of breathing rate and piloerection was observed in a general behavior test with doses up to 200 mg/kg i.p., and 1000 mg/kg p.o., respectively. Increase in the gastrointestinal transit was found using 0.1 g/kg, whereas at doses of 0.5 and 1 g/kg, no significant activity was observed in comparison with the control mice. Hexanic and butanolic fractions induced a remarkable hypotension in anaesthetized normotensive rats in doses of 1, 5, 7.5 and 10 mg/kg i. v. Two compounds isolated from the butanolic fraction induced a significant decrease of the blood pressure, HR, amplitude of the ECG and breathing rate when injected in a dose of 1 mg/kg i.v; and both systofic and diastolic, blood pressures were affected in a proportional mode. The hypotensive effect of the two compounds were not influenced by pretreatment with atropine and propranolol; and the pressor response to noradrenaline was not affected by any of them which suggests that neither a direct muscarinic activity, beta-adrenoceptor activation nor decrease of sympathetic vascular tone (sympatholitic activity) are probably involved in the mechanism of hypotension. The present study shows that the CRE of S. sisymbriifolium contains at least two hypotensive compounds whose characterization is under way.
[PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]

J Ethnopharmacol. 1996 Oct;54(1):7-12.

Hypotensive effect of crude root extract of Solanum sisymbriifolium (Solanaceae) in normo- and hypertensive rats.


Research Department, Faculty of Chemical Sciences, National University of Asuncion, Paraguay.


The hypotensive effect of the crude hydroalcoholic extract from root of Solanum sisymbriifolium Lam. (Solanaceae) was investigated both in normotensive and hypertensive rats. The intravenous administration of the extract (50 and 100 mg/kg) produced a significant decrease in blood pressure in anaesthetized hypertensive (adrenal regeneration hypertension + deoxycorticosterone acetate (ARH + DOCA)) rats. Oral administration of the extract (10, 50, 100 and 250 mg/kg) also produced a dose-dependent hypotensive effect in conscious hypertensive animals. In anaesthetized normotensive rats, the extract (50 and 100 mg/kg, i.v.) also induced hypotension in a dose-dependent manner. Lastly, no significant effect on blood pressure was produced by the extract when administered orally (10, 50, 100, 250, 500 and 1000 mg/kg) to conscious normotensive rats.

[PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Bradley Mayeux August 15, 2016 at 10:00

so has anyone crossed this thing with a tomato ?

can it ?

i would think a cherry TOM cross could prove interesting.
i just polinated my Litchi with one
(or tried to, not sure if it used the TOM pollen, or, its own)
will germinate seeds in spring. fingers crossed


jack February 20, 2015 at 00:16

Aren’t tomatoes self-pollinating?


H December 23, 2015 at 15:09

it isn’t really a tomato some seed sites have them as “garden berries”


Bradley Mayeux August 15, 2016 at 09:57

i have read they need 2 plants for pollination
but, i have 1 plant
and i have fruit
immature pods still… but it seems they are growing.

and i would bet the farm no one else in 10 miles is growing this plant.

now i did try to hand pollinate 3 flowers from a tomato
the problem is i have more than 3 fruit.
6 i think as of last count.
i sure hope the ripen.
i really want seeds and to cultivate a strain for here in New Orleans
we almost never get temps under 25F, maybe every 10 to 20 yrs.

i also have a VERY productive cherry tomato
i would love to cross this thing with.
ive seen the vine get 20ft long
could make for some interesting genes…


Carl March 8, 2014 at 23:55

are the green fruits toxic, like so many of its cousins?


Perry March 5, 2014 at 15:05

Oh crap! I’ve seen these young leaves as weeds in nursery pots!

Now I know. Thank you.


Teshia January 9, 2014 at 16:20

So are these tomatoes the same as the tomatoes in the garden? For instance, if I grow them next to my other heirloom tomatoes will they be able to cross pollinate with the garden variety? Or are they too far unrelated?


Green Deane January 9, 2014 at 16:30

Oh, that’s a good question and beyound my paygrade. Generally strains of tomatoes are well-established. One does not hear much about them hydridizing on their own.


Paul May 28, 2014 at 21:39

I called Baker Creek just the other day. They said Litchi tomato isn’t really a tomato. its just called that. Its in some other fruit family category. So it wont cross with any tomato.


H November 23, 2015 at 14:01

did you happen to ask if its self pollinating?


me June 21, 2016 at 07:17

yeeee bro, i got two plants, i found! but the first one has been producing for a few weeks extra than when the little one i had found underneath had started flowering. volunteers- i planted a tiny three-foot row, got maybe seven plants, and that was bad news!! i got a slimstack harvest, and the spikes were annoying me, so i had the thing slash and burned, (to my neighbors annoyance;))
the problem with them within two feet of eachother, is that they get fourfeet tall in the first year alone, so naturally the bugs take advantage, so mostly worm-holed fruit first year. after the burning of the darned thing, the volunteer (lone, except for the second runt, possibly a fallen cutting which rooted underneath) did just fine, but this is the second year of its growth, I direct-seeded these b_____’s two years ago, and I’m only now enjoying them!! somewhat. they can survive about two-three months no water, but I am getting fruits with lots of water, nothing like the pictures, only half-filled branches, but what the heck, I am planing to make a litchi-blackberry-nopales border to keep out the unwanted ones, all things my family knows how to get through however. (thumbs up)
san francisco area


CeLia July 20, 2013 at 13:53

Can someone send me some seeds, please? 😛


me June 21, 2016 at 07:20

no problem, I’m selling ten seeds for 3 bucks each, best to buy twenty or more seeds, test them out for your area- too early and they may all rot, but just late enough and they work like a charm:)


faride August 24, 2012 at 09:34

i have in my garden


josh yingling July 30, 2012 at 19:49

Any you’ve seen down near Martin county? Very interesting plant though


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