You definitely don't want to eat it!
The Christmas or Jerusalem cherry (Solanum pseudocapsicum) is an old-fashioned parlor plant, which used to be a favorite for holiday decorating. It's so antique, in fact, that it already was going out of style in the late 19th century! The December 1878 issue of Vick’s Monthly Magazine reports that “The old Jerusalem cherry is, of course, well known to all old gardeners, but it is not now so commonly grown as formerly."
Native to Central and South America, it traveled to Madeira with Portuguese sailors, from which archipelago it was introduced into England in the late 1500s. So it sometimes was called the Madeira Winter Cherry as well. Nobody knows how Jerusalem came into the picture! Considering the plant’s association with Christmas, it probably should have been dubbed the Bethlehem Cherry instead.
The shrub, which somewhat resembles a cherry tomato plant, comes in a variety of cultivars, including dwarf and variegated types. Reaching heights between 1 and 4 feet, it makes 1/2 to 3/4-inch star-shaped white flowers in summer, followed by 1/2 to 1-inch-diameter berries. Those generally start out green or white and progress through yellow to orange or red. So a plant can display fruits of several different colors at the same time, like a miniature Christmas tree bedecked with ornaments.
No matter how enticing those “cherries” look, don’t be tempted to eat them, as another of the plant’s common names is Ipecac Nightshade. That means the foliage and berries are toxic enough to at least make you throw up if you consume them. Some sources describe those fruits as only mildly poisonous; some sources insist that they can kill. So, if you want to grow this plant, please keep it out of reach of small children and pets.
Place your Jerusalem cherry atop a humidity tray in a cool, east-facing window where it will receive at least four hours of sunlight per day, and water it whenever the surface of its soil feels dry. If you allow it to become too parched, it is likely to drop both leaves and fruit in protest.
In early spring, cut the plant back severely and re-pot it in fresh soil. Move it outdoors, if possible, during the summer. Leave it in a location where it receives partial sunlight until temperatures drop below 50 degrees Fahrenheit in autumn, since the shortening days will cue it to set fruits again. If you need to keep your plant indoors all year, you'll want to pollinate the flowers by hand to ensure the production of berries.
The Jerusalem cherry is considered hardy to USDA zone 8, but Dave’s Garden members report that it can survive winters outdoors as far north as zone 6b, if heavily mulched or in a protected location. It apparently can survive in a pot for years too, long enough to become a valued family heirloom. Keep in mind that the plant tends to be invasive in warmer climates and is considered a weed in countries such as Australia and New Zealand.
I haven’t seen it offered in local stores recently, since it often is replaced with less toxic ornamental peppers these days. If you ‘d like to try growing it from seeds, sow those seeds in mid-February, about 1/4 inch deep in moist seed-starting mix. Keep them in a cool location—between 60 and 68 degrees F.—until they sprout in two to three weeks. Although it’s a good idea to pinch back the seedlings early and often, to keep them compact and cause them to branch out, stop all such pinching by July if you want the plants to fruit that winter.
There used to be a "false Jerusalem cherry" called Solanum capsicastrum as well. Apparently scientists have decided that it wasn't so false after all--just another variation on the original berry abundant theme!
Photos: The banner photo is by piedmthq from the Dave’s Garden PlantFiles. The antique image is from the 1620 Hortus Eystettensis by Basilius Bessler and the final photo by [email protected]