Economic Botany

, Volume 66, Issue 3, pp 298–310 | Cite as

The Ethnobotany and Ethnopharmacology of Wild Tomatillos, Physalis longifolia Nutt., and Related Physalis Species: A Review

  • Kelly KindscherEmail author
  • Quinn Long
  • Steve Corbett
  • Kirsten Bosnak
  • Hillary Loring
  • Mark Cohen
  • Barbara N. Timmermann


The Ethnobotany and Ethnopharmacology of Wild Tomatillos, Physalis longifolia Nutt., and Related Physalis Species: A Review. The wild tomatillo, Physalis longifolia Nutt., and related species have been important wild-harvested foods and medicinal plants. This paper reviews their traditional use as food and medicine; it also discusses taxonomic difficulties and provides information on recent medicinal chemistry discoveries within this and related species. Subtle morphological differences recognized by taxonomists to distinguish this species from closely related taxa can be confusing to botanists and ethnobotanists, and many of these differences are not considered to be important by indigenous people. Therefore, the food and medicinal uses reported here include information for P. longifolia, as well as uses for several related taxa found north of Mexico. The importance of wild Physalis species as food is reported by many tribes, and its long history of use is evidenced by frequent discovery in archaeological sites. These plants may have been cultivated, or “tended,” by Pueblo farmers and other tribes. The importance of this plant as medicine is made evident through its historical ethnobotanical use, information in recent literature on Physalis species pharmacology, and our Native Medicinal Plant Research Program’s recent discovery of 14 new natural products, some of which have potent anti-cancer activity.


Physalis longifolia Ethnobotany medicinal anti-cancer Tomatillos Paleoethnobotany traditional ecological knowledge Ethnopharmacology medicinal chemistry 

La Etnobotánica y Etnofarmacología de los Tomatillos Silvestres, Physalis longifolia Nutt., y Especies Afines a Physalis: Una Revisión


La Etnobotánica y Etnofarmacología de los Tomatillos Silvestres, Physalis longifolia Nutt., y Especies Afines a Physalis: Una Revisión. El tomatillo silvestre, Physalis longifolia Nutt., y especies afines han sido un importante recurso de alimentos silvestres y de plantas medicinales. Revisamos los usos tradicionales para la alimentación y la medicina, las dificultades taxonómicas, y proporcionamos los últimos descubrimientos de la química medicinal de esta y de otras especies afines. Las sutiles diferencias morfológicas reconocidas por los taxónomos para poder distinguir las estrechas relaciones de taxones entre estas especies son confusas para los botánicos y los etnobotánicos, pero estas diferencias no son reconocidas como importantes por las poblaciones nativas. Por lo tanto, los usos alimenticios y medicinales reportados incluyen no sólo información sobre P. longifolia, sino también para varios taxones relacionados que se encuentran al norte de México. La importancia de las especies silvestres de Physalis como alimento es reportada por muchas tribus y su larga historia de uso se pone de manifiesto por el descubrimiento frecuente en yacimientos arqueológicos. Estas plantas pueden haber sido cultivadas o “atendidas” por los agricultores de Pueblos y otras tribus. La importancia de esta planta como medicina se destaca por su historia de uso etnobotánico, por la literatura reciente sobre la farmacología de las especies de Physalis y por el descubrimiento reciente en nuestro Programa Nativo de Investigación de Plantas Medicinales de 14 nuevos productos naturales, algunos de los cuales tienen potente actividad de anti-cáncer.



This study was supported by grant IND0061464 (awarded to B. Timmermann and K. Kindscher) from the Kansas Bioscience Authority and Heartland Plant Innovations. We have received help from many people with our work on Physalis. Craig Freeman of the R.L. McGregor Herbarium at the University of Kansas has been especially helpful with making species identification. Janet Sullivan of the Albion Hodgdon Herbarium at the University of New Hampshire reviewed the taxonomy in the paper. Maria Pontes Ferreira, Nutrition and Food Science Department, Wayne State University, and Jennifer Delisle, Kansas Biological Survey, helped us with field collections. Dana Peterson and Gorgina Ross (both of the Kansas Biological Survey), respectively, created the distribution map and wrote the Spanish abstract. Important reviews of the manuscript and valuable feedback were provided by Richard Felger, University of Arizona; Richard Ford, Anthropology Department, University of Michigan; and Pam McBride, New Mexico Office of Archeological Studies. Many other staff and students have been helpful in the field, lab, and gardens, including Juan Jose Araya Barrantes, Luanna Bailey, Greg Beverlin, Rachel Craft, Bryn Fragua, Robert Gallagher, Rao Gollapudi, Jason Hering, Tommy Leopard, Kim Scherman, Lauren Service, Ashley Stiffarm, Joe Stogsdill, Robbie Wood III, and Huaping Zhang.

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Copyright information

© The New York Botanical Garden 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kelly Kindscher
    • 1
    Email author
  • Quinn Long
    • 2
  • Steve Corbett
    • 1
  • Kirsten Bosnak
    • 1
  • Hillary Loring
    • 1
  • Mark Cohen
    • 3
  • Barbara N. Timmermann
    • 4
  1. 1.Kansas Biological SurveyUniversity of KansasLawrenceUSA
  2. 2.Missouri Botanical GardenSt. LouisUSA
  3. 3.Department of SurgeryUniversity of Kansas Medical CenterKansas CityUSA
  4. 4.Department of Medicinal ChemistryUniversity of KansasLawrenceUSA

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