Over the years many of our customers have become good friends. Horticulture, specifically gardening, seems to be a gateway for other conversations. And while politics, religion and money sometimes present themselves (three things my parents told me to avoid talking about with friends), travel, entertainment and other hobbies have often been talked about too. One particular customer, now more of a friend, has for the past few years shared his love of gardening and the rewards he reaps from his own toils.
Robert or “Lefty”, as we affectionately refer to him in our community, has been spoiling our team with the likes of kale, Swiss chard, Bok Choy, fall carrots, “Cucs” and my favorite, sugar snap peas, for some time now. His passion for gardening seems to be a lifelong love and his abilities almost always pay off amply. Lefty loves all things nature. Over the years we have talked birding, insects, hiking, waterways, native plants and most recently… Pineapple Husk Tomatoes.
The genus Physalis has many common names including; Husk tomato, ground cherry, strawberry tomato, Chinese lanterns, tomatillo, bladder cherry and Cape gooseberry just to name a few. Members of the nightshade family (Solanaceae), along with eggplant, potatoes, peppers and tobacco, these are flowering plants having nearly 100 species. While most parts of the plant are toxic, including the papery husk, the fruit is described as both sweet and tart. In cultivation, these plants are not self-fertile, hence the need for other plants to be nearby for them to set fruit. Held in high regard for their strong economic importance as food and drug plants, recently; because of Lefty’s generosity, I became enamored with his Husk Tomato Pineapple type. Listed as an herbaceous perennial, this tomatillo type is only hardy in zones 8-10. Small, sweet fruit encased in papery husks (the calyx), these delicious fruits are easily grown from seed and appreciate full sun. Most of the species are indigenous to the Americas and Mexico, many have been introduced worldwide.
Lefty’s Husk Tomato Pineapple, Physalis ixocarpa, apparently is an Eastern European relative of the more common Mexican tomatillo. These plants grow in a bushy habit and their prized ½” golden fruit have a distinct pineapple flavor. While our team found them delicious on their own right, popping them out of their husks and into our mouths, many add them to salsas, sauces, jams, pies and salads.
Lefty’s tomatillo type seemed to fair better than his more traditional tomato types this year, a complaint echoed by others too. Quick to share some of his secrets growing this unique fruit, he attributes much of his success to his own compost recipe. A mixture of straw, we help supply, oak leaves collected from a nearby river bed, grass clippings and Bumper Crop soil, he liberally adds to and turns his compost weekly. Starting in July and mixing through the fall, his devotion to his garden “keeps a retired man busy”, he exclaimed. Protecting his “black gold soil”, Lefty covers it for the winter with a tarp to help keep it moist, but not wet. Finally, Lefty pointed out that having his plants growing on cages makes it easier to spot the fruit when it ripens and falls to the ground, a tip most plant forums share.
Robert and his wife both have a passion for gardening. While her interests may be more centered with growing milkweed for the monarchs, they both enjoy their sunflowers and dahlias. Coincidentally, the day after receiving this culinary treat, I had the opportunity to visit JBJ Soul Kitchen, part of the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation. A non-profit Community Restaurant that serves paying and in-need customers, “All are welcome to enjoy a meal with us, regardless of your ability to pay”. A dining experience staffed by volunteers, who are friends and neighbors, giving back to their community. Truly an unforgettable experience showing kindness, dignity and respect to all who enter; those associated with this cause were all compassionate and earnest. In front of the restaurant is a series of very large, raised beds chock-full of assorted vegetables and herbs. Among the mix was a small tomato type, that while not the same as the previously described, I could not help but be reminded of my pineapple flavored gift. Perhaps a sign to appreciate all that we have in life? Grateful for our friends and family and a gentle reminder to always try to be kind and “Pay It Forward.”