MONTROSE, Pa. — You are familiar with the cherries that grow on trees. But there is another kind of cherry, the ground cherry. When these cherries are ripe, you will not find them on the plant but the ground, hence one of their common names.
This fruit is part of the same family as tomatoes, the Solanaceae. Ground cherries belong to the species Physalis pruinosa. You may be more familiar with other common names for the ground cherry, such as the husk cherry, husk tomato, or strawberry tomato. Another cultivated species of the husk tomato is the tomatillo, Physalis ixocarpa.
Ground cherries grow in tropical, subtropical, and temperate regions worldwide. They are native to Central and South America, with some species in North America.
How ground cherries made their way throughout North America is full of conjecture. In 1774, they made their way to England from South America. Early English settlers later cultivated them at the Cape of Good Hope. This location led to another common name for ground cherries, the Cape gooseberry (Physalis peruviana). This fruit is unrelated to European gooseberries of the genus Ribes, including currants. Common names can be very confusing!
While the ground cherry is considered native, it is often found only in home gardens, small farms, and sometimes farm stands. Ground cherries never became a popular large-scale agricultural crop mainly because the fruit drops to the ground when ripe. The fallen fruit makes them difficult to harvest. It is also challenging to tell whether the fruits are ripe because they grow within a papery husk.
There are more than 75 different species of ground cherries in the genus Physalis within the nightshade family. The fruits of Physalis are similar to a small tomato. This fruit is enclosed in a papery husk called a calyx that enlarges and covers the maturing fruit. The papery covering resembles a lantern. The Chinese lantern fruits (Physalis alkekengi) have bright orange husks. Chinese lanterns are often used in dried flower arrangements and for decorative purposes. Ground cherry husks turn light beige to tan as the fruit ripens.
The ground cherry bears cherry-sized fruits near the ground. The plant’s leaves are hairy or fuzzy. The fruits turn green to golden-yellow and drop to the ground when ripe. The orange-yellow hue has almost a smooth, waxy sheen. The inner pulp is juicy with numerous small edible yellow seeds. Look for fruits fully enclosed in their husks — the drier the husk, the better the cherry. Occasionally, ground cherry husks drop to the ground prematurely while fruits are still green-tinged. Unfortunately, these seldom ripen.
Ground cherries can be planted outdoors two to four weeks after the last expected frost. In our USDA Plant Hardiness Zone, 5b, this is near June 1. Harden off seedlings before planting outdoors. Ground cherries prefer rich, light, well-drained soil in a sunny location. The leaves and the husks protect the edible fruits from sunburn so that they can handle extreme heat better than most vegetables. They require sufficient and regular irrigation throughout the growing season for quality fruit. Ground cherries prefer slightly acidic soil, pH 6.0 to 6.5.
Ground cherries grow 1.5 to 3 feet in height with lateral spreading. This size makes them suitable for small space gardeners or container gardening on a sunny deck or patio. Ground cherries can be grown vertically by staking, using a tomato cage, or another type of trellis. If planting in a square foot garden, allow at least four squares per plant, two feet by two feet. They will benefit by two to three inches of straw mulch. Mulching helps to decrease weed competition, maintain even soil moisture, and reduce competition for water and nutrients. It will also provide a base for easier harvest.
Nightshade family plants compete for soil resources and attract similar pests. Don’t plant ground cherries with eggplants, tomatoes, peppers, or potatoes. Ground cherries are notorious self-seeders. Once you grow ground cherries, ground cherries will always be with you. Keep in mind that ground cherries can become an agricultural pest as well. If you are a seed saver, properly cleaned seeds can be stored successfully. Usually, seed catalogs that feature heirloom varieties include ground cherries.
Ground cherries in their husks will remain fresh for two to three months in the refrigerator. Or you can remove the husks, freeze the cherries individually on a baking sheet, seal them in a freezer bag, and store them for several months in the freezer. However, any ground cherries with opened or damaged husks should be refrigerated and consumed within ten days.
Ground cherries make excellent jellies, jams, and preserves. You can dry them just as you would sun-dried tomatoes. Grind husk cherries to make salsa verde as with tomatillos. Or prepare a ground cherry pie, upside-down cake, or a ground cherry and plum torte. Layer halved ground cherries with fresh tomatoes and basil for a delicious appetizer. Of course, enjoy ground cherries as fresh fruits!
Wildlife such as raccoons, opossums, foxes, deer, rabbits, chipmunks, and squirrels find ground cherries tasty. These animals help to spread seeds far and wide.
Anyone with known allergies to tomatoes should not consume ground cherries or other husk fruits such as tomatillos. Ground cherries are members of the nightshade family, containing solanine and other solanidine alkaloids. These toxins are lethal in the plant’s leaves and unripe fruit. Immature berries have the highest level of toxins.
What is the flavor of a ground cherry? Some folks describe the taste of ground cherries as sweet and zesty. Others claim that it is a sweet-tart taste rather like pineapple meeting vanilla. Still, others state that the flavor is uniquely their own: fruity, a bit nutty, and a bit like a tomato. Try growing ground cherries or look for them at your local farmer’s market from late summer through autumn. Then, you can decide what flavors you taste.
Penn State Extension Master Gardeners are right in your backyard! Penn State Extension Office, 88 Chenango Street, Montrose, Email: email@example.com or call 570.666.9003.
–Stacey Kalechitz, Penn State Extension