By Bonnie L. Grant
The Morelle de Balbis shrub is not standard fare at the local garden center or nursery. It is neither a litchi nor a tomato and quite hard 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 Morelle de Balbis 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 eight-foot 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 soils that are at least 60 degrees Fahrenheit. 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 soil and keep the flat in a warm area at least 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Keep soil moderately moist until germination. Slightly increase moisture levels 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 three feet apart in well-drained soil in a sunny, protected area of the garden. Incorporate rotted organic material to soil for tilth and nutrients 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 is not ready to produce until 90 days after transplant, so start it early enough for your zone.
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.