Beautiful flower, isn't it? Somewhat familiar, you say? For you veteran gardeners, you'll recognize that it's probably a member of the nightshade family, and you're absolutely right. For those of you whom I talked into buying a seedling of this plant this past spring, you'll also recognize it, as you should have it handsomely growing in your gardens by now.
For those of you who have grown tomatillos before, you'll find its husk-covered fruits somewhat familiar (without those thorns, of course).
This plant is an interesting sister of the tomato and of the tomatillo. It's called Morelle de Balbis, or less elegantly, the Litchi Tomato. A member of the Solanacea family, its proper name is Solanum Sisymbriifolium.
I received the seeds of this beautiful plant from Sylvain, Alan Passard's head gardener, when I was fortunate enough to visit the chef's farm outside of Le Mans, France. Out of all the plants Sylvain was cultivating for Passard's world-famous restaurant, L'Arpege, he wanted me to have these seeds. Sylvain doesn't speak English, and I don't speak French, but I could tell just by looking at the seed that it was a nightshade plant. The seed looks like an exact cross between a tomato and a pepper. He told me through an interpreter that the fruit tasted like a cherry. I was in.
I hid the precious seeds in a side pocket of my suitcase, and forgot to declare them when I came back through Customs in the States (this is actually true, I ignorantly declared all of the other seeds I had carefully selected and purchased while traveling through Europe; and watched in horror as the Customs agent wordlessly grabbed the hefty stack and threw it into the trash).
When I was ready to germinate the seeds, I couldn't find any information about them on-line, but their care must be just like a tomato, I surmised. And indeed they were. They grew and flourished exactly like one. Except for the thorns. Take a look at these thorns! They're on just about every surface of this plant: the stems, both upper and lower sides of the leaves, even the fruit husks!
I also realized that they need staking, just like most well-tended tomatoes do. We put them in our standard 7 foot tall by 2 foot wide concrete-reinforcing wire cages. The other thing I learned about the Litchi Tomato is that they need a pollinator. That is, you must grow at least two plants together, not just one. If you only grow one, you won't get any of the blossoms pollinated. You need those blossoms pollinated in order to have it turn into a fruit.
Somewhat like a tomatillo, the ripening fruit will burst the husk, revealing that it's ready to pick (with heavily gloved hands). I wait for the red fruit to start to soften, which is what you should do for a tomatillo or a tomato to ensure maximum sweetness.