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Tepehuán Tomatillo

tepehuan tomatillo


Physalis philadelphica


Nabogame, near Guadaloupe de Calvo, Chihuahua, Mexico.




Tomatillos are native to North America. Evidence from excavations of the Tehuacán Valley in Mexico shows that tomatillos were used as food as early as 900 BC. The Aztecs used these fruits widely, and the name tomatillo comes from the Uto-Aztecan Nuahatl word, ‘tomatl’. Small, wild tomatillos were also used for food during ancient times in the Southwestern United States.


Tomatillos are commonly used in Mexican and Southwestern cuisine, either raw or cooked, to make salsa verde, gazpacho and guacamole. The salsa traditionally accompanies beans in Tepehuán cookery. They have a sweet, slightly acidic taste.


Tomatillos are high in anti-oxidants known as withanolides, as well as vitamins A, C and E, potassium, copper, iron, phosphorus and manganese.


The withanolide Ixocarpalactone-A in tomatillos has anti-bacterial and anti-cancer properties. The anti-cancer properties are said to be especially high in wild tomatillos. The Omaha, Ponca and Winnebago peoples have all historically used wild tomatillos to treat headaches and stomachaches, and to dress wounds. Tomatillos are also said to contribute to healthy eyes.


The Tepehuán tomatillo was stewarded for many years by the Native American jazz and big band musician, Chester Gaspar, from Ojo Caliente, New Mexico. Chester made a salsa from roasted Tepehuán tomatillos, mixed with onions, garlic, chiles and cilantro.

The Tepehuán are an agricultural people who live in the Northwestern Mexican states of Durango and Nayarit. They traditionally consume mainly dry-farmed corn, beans and squash and have a high proportion of wild foods in their diet. Along with wild tomatillos, the Tepehuán gather roots, shoots, other fruits, greens, agave products and edible mushrooms. In recent generations, many Tepehuán have moved off the land, and work in jobs in towns and cities and consequentially, knowledge of food gathering from the wild is becoming limited to elders.


This variety of tomatillo commonly grows wild among the fields of Tepehuán and Tarahumara farmers in the Sierra Madres of Mexico. Sometimes the wild growing plants can be considered a weed, but they are harvested for their edible fruits. Tomatillos grow in the warm summer months.


Martha Gonzalez Elizondo (1991) Ethnobotany of the Southern Tepehuan of Durango, Mexico: I Edible Mushrooms. Journal of Ethnobiology 11(2): 165-173. Retrieved from

Gary Paul Nabhan editor (2008) Renewing America’s Food Traditions. Saving and Savoring the Continent’s Most Endangered Foods. Burlington, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company.