Somewhere along the line, wires were crossed and a once well-known fruit fell into obscurity. These little late autumn, golden gems have been relegated to weed status in many parts of the world. The genus Physalis consists of about 100 species with similar characteristics. The fruits grow encased in a papery husk. The familiar tomatillo and ornamental Chinese lantern are members of this tribe, belonging to the Solanaceae family. Yes, that's right, ground cherries are cousins of the tomato, pepper, eggplant and petunia, just to name a few. They have a number of common names, ground cherries, husk cherries, winter strawberries and cape gooseberries. In reality, the cape gooseberry is a different plant, but the name seems to be used interchangeably for some reason. Why 'ground' cherry? Well, that name describes a unique characteristic. When the fruits are ripe, they drop to the ground and to harvest, just pick them up each day.
This weedy plant produces hundreds of small golden berries that have a mild, sweet flavor that some compare to a strawberry or pineapple. I've tasted them, and the ones in my area have a slightly sweet, citrusy flavor, but definitely need some assistance before they could be termed tasty. Ground cherries were popular among native peoples and early settlers. They provide Vitamin A and C, a low glycemic index, along with significant amounts of beta carotene, calcium, iron and fiber. It took several years before an orchard was mature enough to produce, however, this little plant could complete the cycle in just one year. It can go from seed to fruit in one growing season. A very helpful feature for subsistence farmers and hunter/gatherers.
Physalis species are common all around the world and the fruits are more popular in Europe than in other areas. They are baked into pies, cooked into jams or simply dipped in chocolate or eaten fresh. North America is finally seeing these little fruits popping up in upscale farmers markets and trendy CSA boxes. They store well, so it is surprising that they haven't made their way to mainstream supermarkets, but perhaps there will be a trickle down effect over the next few years. Experiment with a box if you run across some. They work well in salads, fresh salsas and roasted with meats. Many older folks will remember ground cherry pies and preserves. Follow recipes for blueberries for excellent results.
Ground cherries were also used in folk medicine. They have anti-inflammatory and diuretic properties and were also used to treat asthma, dermatitis, fever, coughs and rheumatism. They also contain a significant amount of melatonin which helps regulate sleep cycles. Physalis species have been used in folk medicine of India and Asia for centuries and modern research finds promising anti-cancer compounds that might make a significant impact on that disease as well.
With all of these positive aspects, folks may wonder why everyone isn't growing this plant. There are actually a couple of drawbacks. First and foremost, it reseeds and multiplies faster than a colony of rabbits. A single plant can turn into hundreds the next season. Since ground cherries drop to the ground when ripe and the papery husks are the color of dirt, invariably you miss a few when gathering them. They have an astonishing germination rate and will pop up in your garden, your neighbor's garden and the garden down the block. Wildlife adore them and raccoons, possums, foxes, deer and rabbits all find them tasty. They will help spread the seeds far and wide. Ground cherries tend to prefer disturbed ground, so have become and agricultural pest as well. I picked mine from the edge of a neighboring soybean field where the plants were flourishing along with the main crop. Several weeks later, I returned after the soybeans were harvested to find hundreds of the papery husks with perfectly ripe fruits carpeting the ground.
Ground cherries aren't picky about soil and will grow almost anywhere, but do prefer full sun and well-drained conditions, much like their tomato cousins. Start 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost date indoors for an earlier harvest and plant out when the ground has warmed. Plant deep enough to bury the stem since Physalis will sprout roots just like a tomato, adding to the plant's stability and potential to absorb water and nutrients. The tiny, yellowish flowers will soon follow and the the lantern-like husks quickly after, green at first, changing to tan. The first fruits should start dropping to the ground 70 to 80 days later. We have a number of participating vendors offering several species of both plants and seeds, so you can experiment to see what does best in your garden and what flavor you prefer. Just remember that ground cherries will always be with you once you plant them. So be prepared to pull volunteers for years to come.