Aunt molly’s ground cherry

Table of Contents

What tastes like a cherry tomato injected with mango and pineapple juice, and looks like an orange pearl encased in a miniature paper lantern?

No, I’m not just trying to cram as many fruit references into one sentence as possible. It’s a real plant: Physalis pruinosa, aka the “ground cherry.”

I’d never heard of them until they showed up in our CSA share last week. Ground cherries are one of those slightly obscure seasonal things—like purple long beans or fresh lima beans—you’ll probably come across only by chance from a farmstand or a friend’s garden. If you do, consider yourself lucky!

These little gems are in the same genus as tomatillos (Physalis philadelphica)—hence the similar papery husk—and the same family as tomatoes. Ground cherries taste slightly sweet and tropical, with a texture that’s somewhere between a tomato and a grape. According to this article, their common name comes from the fact that the fruit falls to the ground when it is ripe. The guy at our local farmstand called them “ground tomatoes,” and a bit of online research turns up many other names: “husk cherries,” “winter cherries,” “strawberry tomatoes.” Some sources also call them Cape gooseberries, but from what I can tell, those are slightly different (Physalis peruviana).

Well, whatever they are, I like them.

Ground cherries are very versatile, suitable in both sweet and savory dishes. You can just unwrap the fruits and eat them raw, like cherry tomatoes (which is what I’ve been doing), but here are some other recipe ideas:

1. Puree them into a salsa verde, or chop them in into this ground cherry salsa.

2. Bake a ground cherry pie, upside-down cake, or a husk cherry and plum tart.

3. Layer halved ground cherries with fresh tomatoes and basil for an easy appetizer.

4. Make a simple salad from greens, ground cherries and goat cheese, or get a little more complex with husk cherry Waldorf salad.

5. Ground cherry jam is “easy peasy,” we hear.

Any other ideas?

Grandma Ott’s Ground Cherry Jam

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From Diane Ott Whealy, co-founder of Seed Savers Exchange

One of the pleasures of preserving heirloom varieties is that not only are they laden with beauty, diversity, and flavor, but they also hold the power to bring back emotionally-charged memories with their wonderful taste.

Ground cherries conjure up especially fond memories for me, as we had them growing in my families’ gardens for generations. We used this delicious fruit for jams, pies, sauces, or my favorite: husked fresh from the garden, still warm and sweet from the sunshine. Ground cherries (Physalis pruinosa)—not to be confused with tomatillo (Physalis philadelphica)—are native to Central America. They produce a very sweet yellow-gold, cherry-sized fruit in a papery husk that drops from the plant just before they ripen. The ‘Aunt Molly’s’ heirloom ground cherry found its way to the Seed Savers Exchange collection and has been in my garden for years. These plants are part of my garden that seeds itself, and there are always enough fruit left on the ground to seed new plants.

Growing up, my children loved ground cherries and would inadvertently alert me when they were ripe. I’d find piles of light-brown empty husks lying beside the plant or in a trail leading out of the garden. My youngest daughter recently mentioned how she looked forward to them and that she was surprised how something so sweet was found on the ground—and in Iowa!

My Grandma Ott treasured her ground cherries for jams and pies. She would pick all she could before frost and store them in their husks under a bed upstairs. They would keep for months in that cool place and could be used fresh for special-occasion pies in the winter.

While working in my garden these days, I unwrap a husk and pop a golden cherry into my mouth to be reminded of Grandma Ott’s kitchen, her pies and jam, and my children’s trail of empty husks leading out of the garden.

Yields about 5 pints

Last updated on December 9th, 2018

Just when we’re mourning the end of the summer growing season—roasting squash instead of grilling corn, picking apples instead of raspberries—an intriguing fall fruit pops up in the markets to goose our senses.

Photo: Casey Barber
The cape gooseberry, also known as the ground cherry, Aztec or Inca berry, or husk tomato, is a burst of sunshine, a late-blooming addition to the roster of sunset-hued produce making its way into our baskets this time of year. (It’s also the namesake for one of the most coveted Pyrex patterns, dontcha know?)

A little bit of confusion reigns over the nomenclature: unlike the European gooseberry, which is a cousin to the currant and is something I imagine Veruca Salt demanding for dessert, the cape gooseberry is South American in origin (though popularized after its cultivation at South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, hence the “cape” in its name) and a relative of the tomatillo.

It’s not surprising to learn these facts about this unusual fruit’s lineage; the golden berries, encased in paper lantern husks, look like the tiniest yellow cherry tomatoes imaginable and share a similarly savory-sweet balance of flavor. Riper, more orange ground cherries tend to be sweeter than the early-picked, more yellow ones, but all are intriguingly tasty.

Photo: Casey Barber
Ask five different people how a ground cherry tastes and you’ll get five different answers—some find its earthiness to be most prominent, others detect notes of pear and fig, others think it’s more of a tropical taste.

Some might even find a candy-like sweetness. When I served this ground cherry compote (recipe below) as part of a dessert course at a recent pierogi and beer dinner in support of Pierogi Love, I was told that the compote had “jelly donut” undertones—which was a comparison and a compliment I’m happy to accept!

Photo: Casey Barber
Those who fall within the Venn diagram of bakers and gardeners love to add easy-growing ground cherries to their edible homestead lineup. My proficient gardener sister grows them specifically to transform her haul into jam every autumn, and even my black thumb managed to cultivate a few plants a few summers ago.

The fruits will take their sweet time all summer, the husks finally drying from green to delicate beige as they ripen anywhere from August to October here in the Northeast.

Since ground cherry plants are perennials, the roots will hang out and re-sprout the next spring, giving you ample opportunity to play around and find new ways to eat these strange little orbs—starting with this sweet autumn compote.

Spoon it over ice cream or cheesecake, swap it out for syrup over pancakes or waffles, swirl it into yogurt, serve it with goat cheese and crackers, or you know, with pierogies.

Ingredients

  • 1/2 pound (8 ounces; 227 grams) husked ground cherries (1 dry pint will yield between 4 and 6 ounces by weight, so this is a good time to get a kitchen scale to see how much you’re really working with!)
  • 1/4 cup (1 3/4 ounces; 50 grams) granulated sugar
  • zest of 1 small lemon
  • 2-4 tablespoons water
  • 2-4 tablespoons maple syrup

Instructions

  1. Add the ground cherries, sugar, lemon zest, and 2 tablespoons water to a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Stir occasionally as the sugar dissolves into the liquid and the fruit starts to soften.
  2. Continue to simmer the compote for about 10-15 minutes, stirring every now and then; add the remaining water if the compote starts to stick and burn. The ground cherries should be very soft but most should remain whole, surrounded by a loose fruit syrup.
  3. Remove from the heat and stir in the maple syrup, starting with 2 tablespoons and adding more to taste.
  4. Let cool slightly before serving, or pour into a heat-safe container like a mason jar and refrigerate for up to 1 week.

How to Grow and Use Heirloom Ground Cherries

Aunt Molly’s ground cherry preserves may have occupied a privileged spot in your great-aunt’s pantry, but you’ll be hard pressed to find them nowadays. Ground cherries (Physalis pruinosa) are an endangered heirloom. Their recorded heritage traces back to 1837, when they first appeared in Pennsylvania horticultural literature.

Once commonly grown in backyard gardens, ground cherries somehow lost their way. Though they are ridiculously easy to grow and store, ground cherries are difficult to transport. Urbanization and the movement away from growing one’s own food led to the demise of this golden gem. The good news is that they can be grown in containers or raised beds, they’re relative pest-free, and they produce abundant fruit from mid-summer through frost.

Ground cherries are really not cherries at all. They are members of the Solanaceae family, which includes tomatoes and tomatillos. Like the tomatillo, ground cherries grow inside a papery husk. When ripe, ground cherries turn bright yellow and fall to the ground. Though several varieties are native throughout the Americas and Eastern Europe (‘Aunt Molly’ is a Polish variety), ground cherries taste like tropical treats. Their pineapple — vanilla flavor brightens pies, jams, and chutneys. They are equally delicious eaten raw, dried, or cooked. Squirrels and small children are keen to ground cherries’ charms, so gardeners should keep a close look-out for ripe, fallen fruit.

Ground cherries are frost tender and should be started indoors 6-8 weeks before spring planting in cooler climates. They’ll produce prolifically beginning 70 days from transplant, through the first fall frost. Good drainage and humus-rich soil ensure an abundant crop. Two to three plants grown in raised-beds or large pots will provide enough ground cherries for a season of tasty jams and pies, with a few left over for wildlife. Staking helps keep branches and fruit off the ground. Though they are sometimes susceptible to flee-beetles, ground cherries’ weed-like nature makes them fairly disease resistant. In addition to ‘Aunt Molly’s,’ tasty varieties to try include: Physalis pubescens ‘Cossack,’ Physalis pubescens ‘Goldie,’ and Physalis peruviana ‘Cape Gooseberry.’

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Once harvested, ground cherries will continue to ripen, if placed in a well-ventilated container on the countertop. They will store for up to three months in a cool (50 degree) environment. They also store well when dried like raisins, either in a dehydrator, or by placing them in the oven on its lowest setting for several hours.

Ground Cherry Crumb Pie

Filling

6 c. ground cherries
1 c. granular sugar
1 tsp. almond extract
3 Tbsp. flour
¼ tsp. salt
prepared pie shell or crust

Topping

3/4 c. flour
1/2 c. brown sugar
¼ tsp. salt
3/4 c. unsalted butter, cut into pieces

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Combine ground cherries with filling ingredients: granular sugar, almond extract, flour, and salt.

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For the topping: mix the remaining ingredients in a large bowl, using your hands or a pastry knife to blend butter into the dry ingredients.

Pour ground cherry mixture into the pie crust, and sprinkle crumb topping evenly on top.

Place the pie on top of a cookie sheet to catch any drippings.

Bake for 1 ½ hours, or until the fruit is bubbly and the topping is brown.

Cool for several hours before cutting.

Brenda Lynn is the author of www.BeeHappyGarden.com, a blog devoted to small-space, organic vegetable gardening, native plants, and beekeeping. She is a free-lance writer, garden coach, and outdoor educator in northern Virginia, where she lives and gardens in her suburban backyard.

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Ever since I ran a vegetable CSA in the ’90s, I’ve been interested in unusual garden plants. I look for crops that are well adapted to our northern climate, produce heavily, are easy to grow and taste wonderful.

I discovered several plants that add flair and discovery to our CSA boxes. These include kohl- Rabi, mizuna, Blackstrap and Red Russian kale, pattypan squash, Rat-tail radish, arugula, cilantro, tomatillos, shungiku and ground cherries.

Over the past decade, some of these plants have become quite popular in the local food movement in Nova Scotia, while others remain obscure. This article sings the praises of the small, tasty little ground cherry, a plant that deserves to be in the garden of everyone who loves fresh, delicious, Canadian-grown, organic produce.

Ground cherries (Physalis pruinosa and P. peruviana) are nightshades, members of the Solanaceae family which includes the tomato. They them to six-pack cells four to five weeks, and later to four-inch pots if you are closely related to cape gooseberries, tomatillos and Chinese lanterns (all Physalis species). The most common variety is Aunt Molly’s, a Polish heirloom prized for its blemish-free fruit, good size and wonderful flavour.

Ground cherry fruits are typically bright yellow- orange, the diameter of a dime to a nickel, and grow individually in tan coloured papery husks. They are crisp and sweet, and the harvest period can last two months or more. Ground cherries store well for several weeks in their husks in paper bags in the fridge.

Ground cherries begin to ripen about 70 days after transplanting and continue producing until frost. Each plant can produce several hundred little fruit. Two or three plants give a family fruit for fresh eating over several weeks. Six to eight plants give plenty for preserving, baking, freezing and fresh eating. A market gardener would likely want at least ten plants.

Planting ground cherries

Ground cherries are easy to grow and harvest. Treat them as you would peppers or tomatoes. Start seeds indoors 6–8 weeks before the last frost date and provide adequate heat. Germination can be somewhat spotty and take up to two weeks, so plant generous amounts of seed. I add a quarter cup of composted seaweed per gallon of pot- ting soil.

You can start seeds in trays or pots. Transplant them to six-pack cells at four to five weeks, and later to four-inch pots if you won’t be planting them out until the eight-week mark. Like all seedlings, vigorously growing younger transplants do better than larger seedlings that have been in their pots too long.

Patio gardeningPerhaps because their wild cousins thrive in dry, hot climates, ground cherries are perfectly happy in the high heat and well drained environment offered by a container or deck garden. The some- what decorative plants are well suited to a patio because of their long harvest season and the fact they thrive in the extra heat offered near a house. I would use a container at least 2 gallons in size. A small trellis or tomato cage will keep the plants tidy.

I start my ground cherry seed- lings in mid-April. Keep seedlings warm and well watered and allow the soil to almost dry out between watering—these heat-loving plants don’t tolerate cold roots.

When the threat of a late spring frost has passed and conditions are right for planting tomatoes, basil, corn, peppers and beans, the weather is perfect for transplanting ground cherries. In late May or early June, I harden off transplants for at least five days. This adds to the workload in a busy sea- son, but the reduction in trans- plant shock is well worth the extra effort.

To harden off, I put seedlings outside for a couple of hours on a fine day in a fairly sheltered location, and then move them back indoors. The next day, I put them out for an afternoon. On the third day, I leave them out for most of the day. I repeat this on day four, but move the seedlings to a slightly more exposed location. On day five, I leave them out all day and night. Depending on weather and how well the plants are adjusting, I often give plants another few days of living outdoors in their pots before transplanting. The plants are well watered throughout the hardening off process.

I transplant ground cherries into beds in full sun. One-foot spacing can work for the sprawling plants if you use tomato cages to train the plants. Otherwise, give plants 18–24 inches in all directions. Additional space between plants makes harvesting easier and can promote better airflow, allowing plants to cope with dampness during a rainy summer.

I place a scoopful of mushroom compost in each whole, transplant the seedling, water and then mulch. Some gardeners grow ground cherries in marginal soil without adding compost. Our ground cherries usually do not require any additional irrigation or fertilization throughout the growing season. Weeding is minimal due to good bed preparation and mulching. In very dry conditions, keep an eye on your plants and water thoroughly if they start to wilt. Ground cherries are a low maintenance crop requiring little care.

Troubleshooting

Ground cherries are hardy, pest-resistant plants when given ideal growing conditions—planted in well drained soil in full sun with enough space to ensure good ventilation. Cold, wet or poorly drained soils, inadequate heat, and prolonged dampness can stress these plants. Stressed plants are vulnerable to Colorado potato beetles, mildew, mould, improper fruit set, and other common tomato pests and diseases.

Raised beds help gardeners with heavy clay soils grow ground cherries successfully. Growing under a row cover or in a greenhouse or hoophouse are good options for cool areas.

“The flavour is often described as a blend between strawberry and pineapple, and called both ‘wild’ and ‘exotic’.”

Harvest

Ground cherries drop to the ground upon ripening. They can be gathered every day or two by scooping up handfuls of the husks under the plants. The water-conserving and weed- suppressing mulch leads to a tidy, clean harvest.

I heard about a gardener who leaves rags under her plants. She drags these out every few days, collects the fruit and then replaces the rags.

Saving seed

Saving seed from ground cherries is simple. Different varieties cross with one another, so only plant one variety within 100 metres of an- other. However, ground cherries will not cross with tomatillos, Chinese lanterns, cape goose- berries or other Physalis species.

Gather fruit for seed saving throughout the growing season—some early in the season, some mid-season, and some near frost-time. This way, you preserve a wide range of genetic variability.

Remove the paper husks from the fruit, place them in a blender (up to half full) with just enough water to cover, and blend on low speed for 20–30 seconds. The blades will not damage the tough, slippery seed coats. Next, fill the blender to the top with water, and allow the liquid to settle for 10–15 seconds. The vi- able seeds will settle to the bottom.

Pour off half the contents of the blender, stir, allow to settle for an- other 10–15 seconds, and then pour off most of the water. You’ll see the seeds at the bottom. Re- peat until only seeds and water are left. Pour the remaining water and seeds through a sieve.

Use a towel or rag to rub the bottom of the sieve, absorbing extra water off the seeds. Then dump the seeds onto a plate, baking dish or cookie sheet. Avoid anything with high sides that will prevent good air flow. Label with the variety name and date, and al- low to dry for 5–14 days (depending on air humidity). Stir daily to keep seeds from sticking to the tray or each other. Store completely dry seeds in an airtight container in a cold, dark, dry basement, fridge or freezer. The seeds are viable for three years or longer.

Ground cherries in the kitchen

The flavour of ground cherries is often described as a blend between strawberry and pineapple, and called both ‘wild’ and ‘exotic.’ I find them sweet and slightly tart all at once, perfect on the palate. They are plump and solid like a cherry, not soft like a raspberry. They have tiny seeds but the texture is seedless, like a nice seedless grape. They are juicy like a cherry tomato. I like them cold out of the fridge, but they get gobbled up by our children and interns alike in the gardens on a hot summer day.

Ground cherries can be dried like raisins, or pre- served in jams, salsas, marmalades and chutneys. They can be baked in pies, cooked into sauce for ice cream or cheesecake, dipped in a chocolate fondue, made into a variety of dazzling desserts including flognarde, or diced and eaten with yogurt and granola. I’ve seen them used as a simple but elegant garnish in upscale restaurants with the inside-out husk attached.

Ground cherries also freeze very well, husked and popped whole into bags, allowing you to enjoy the fresh flavour of this amazing little fruit throughout the winter.

Ground Cherry and Chamomile Jam

Adapted from one of my favourite blogs “Straight from the Farm”

6 cups husked ground cherries
3 cups sugar
1½ cups honey
½ cup water
1 lemon, juiced
2 cups chamomile infusion

Combine sugar, honey, water and lemon juice in a large heavy saucepan and bring to a boil. Add ground cherries and simmer for 5 minutes or until most have burst. Remove from heat and mash with a large spoon to break up fruit.

Transfer to a large bowl and cover with parchment paper or a heavy tea towel (don’t let it touch the fruit). Refrigerate for at least three hours or overnight.

Make a chamomile infusion by putting 2¼ cups water in a pot and adding either 2 chamomile tea bags, 2 tablespoons fresh flowers, or 2 teaspoons dried chamomile flowers. Bring to just before a boil, turn off heat, and keep covered until cool. Refrigerate if you are leaving it overnight.

Strain two cups of fruit mixture through a fine mesh strainer. Transfer strained liquid with the unstrained fruit mixture back to the saucepan and return to a boil. Add two cups chamomile infusion and simmer until it reaches jam consistency. The jam can now be canned, frozen or refrigerated.

Recipe makes 4–5 jars.

Ground cherry pie

4 cups husked ground cherries
2 cups sugar
2 Tbsp. flour
½ tsp. cinnamon
¼ tsp. nutmeg
2 Tbsp. melted butter
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
Enough pastry for a lattice-topped 9-inch pie

Preheat oven to 350°F. Combine sugar, flour, cin- namon and nutmeg. Add ground cherries and stir to coat. Add melted butter and lemon juice, stir again. Pour into unbaked pie crust, cover with strips of dough to form a lattice topping (a plain crust can also be used, with a few slits cut in the top). Bake for 45 to 55 minutes, or until the crust is golden.

Ground cherry salsa

1 pint of ground cherries, cut in half
½ red onion, diced
½ cucumber, diced
¼ jalapeno pepper, diced
2 sweet peppers, diced (ideally, of two dif- ferent colours)
1 large bunch cilantro, coarsely chopped
1 small fresh squeezed lime juice
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 small pinch sea salt

Mix together and let sit for 30 minutes so the flavours come together. Do not overdo the salt or lime. The small amount of salt is needed to draw the liquid out of the ground cherries.

Small, husk wearing, fuzzy leaved little gems, these golden cherry tomato looking fruits may be one of the lesser known members of the nightshade family. However, once discovered you won’t forget their sweet, tart pineapple-mango-strawberry-tomato cross taste. This charming little member of the Physalis genus, which includes other husk covered fruits such as tomatillos and Chinese lanterns, are a delight to grow in the garden and enjoy in the kitchen.

The World Traveler

The ground cherry (Physalis peruviana) is commonly called the Cape Gooseberry, Goldenberry, Husk Cherry, Husk Tomato, or sometimes the Poha, Poha Berry. This many named fruit is believed to have originated in Brazil, spreading to other areas of South America. By the 18th-century, ground cherries were wildly grown and utilized in South Africa near the Cape of Good Hope, which inspired the name Cape Gooseberry. The fruit soon found its way to Australia where it quickly spread as a wild plant. In the early part of the 19th century, the ground cherry was introduced and established in the Hawaiian Islands. In the 20th century, this fascinating little fruit showed up in the continental U.S. and continues to grow in popularity worldwide.

Easy Growing

Whether you are living in the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Cod, you can take a crack at cultivating these captivating calyx covered cuties. To do so, plant in full sun, although partial shade will do, in soil that’s well-drained and anywhere in the pH range of 5 – 8. Planting of seedlings should begin 2 weeks after the last expected frost date in your area, and after seedlings have been hardened. Ground cherries can be planted at the same time you plant your tomatoes or tomatillos. If planting seeds, start indoors 6 weeks prior to the last frost date and in soil that is consistently over 70°F.

When planting seedlings space them at least 4’ apart, because while these prolific plants may not grow very tall, they do love to sprawl, hence the name “ground” cherries. As the plants begin to grow, keep the soil moist, especially prior to flowering. However, do not overwater as this can lead to fungal growth and rot. Ground cherries are abundant and hardy growers, requiring little maintenance, and even tolerant of and do well in pots.

As ground cherries mature they will develop small yellow colored flowers with brown centers that transform into the harvestable fruit. The fruit is usually ready to harvest mid to late summer and is considered ripe when the husks have turned from green to tan and the fruit falls from the plant, no picking required. Once your fruit begins to ripen begin checking your plants and harvesting nearly every day because ground cherries are indeterminate growers and will produce copious amounts of fruit until frost sets in.

A note of caution: Because ground cherries are nightshades they contain solanine and other solanidine alkaloids. These are considered toxins and can be found in lethal levels in the unripe fruit and leaves of the ground cherry. Do NOT allow consumption of the unripe fruit or the leaves of the ground cherry plant by any humans, livestock, or pets.

Mischief-makers

Your plants will need to be checked for cutworms and spider mites. If you discover cutworms pick them off by hand and drop them into soapy water. It’s best to do this at night using a flashlight. To prevent cutworms sprinkle spent coffee grounds and/or eggshells around your plants or try using diatomaceous earth circled around your plants. Attracting fireflies and birds to your garden can help control cutworm populations, as can keeping your garden neat and tidy. Mulching with oak leaves and also planting tansy can ward off cutworms.

Spider mites feed on the underside of leaves, so if possible, infected leaves should be removed. For those that cannot be removed, dislodge the mites with a hose fitted with a spray nozzle. You can also spray the plants with a mixture of rosemary essential oil and water or with soapy water, but do NOT do this is the plant is stressed or dehydrated, or during the heat of the day. Encouraging beneficial insects and spiders to populate your garden can help control mite populations.

Oh the Goodness!

The ground cherry isn’t just delicious it’s also nutritious. In one cup (140 grams) the ground cherry offers 74 calories, 1 gram of fat, 3 grams of protein, and 16 grams of carbohydrates (4 grams of which is dietary fiber). The ground cherry is an excellent source of Vitamins A, C, and B-3 (Niacin). They are also a good source of Vitamins B-1 (Thiamin) and offer Vitamin B-2 (Riboflavin) and the minerals non-heme iron, calcium, and phosphorus.

Due to the orange-golden color from phytochemicals called carotenoids, the ground cherry has many anti-inflammatory and immune boosting properties and can help protect against the risk of heart disease and poor eye, skin, and bone health. Ground cherries also contain phytochemical compounds called withanolides. Withanolides exhibit significant biological activities such as acting as an antimicrobial, antitumor, anti-inflammatory, and immunomodulatory agent. Withanolides have displayed the ability to suppress the growth of many types of tumor cells, through apoptosis, in cancers such as breast, pancreatic, prostate, lung, leukemia, and head and neck squamous cell carcinoma. With the antioxidant properties from its vitamin and mineral composition plus its phytochemical composition, the ground cherry is an amazing fruit that can boost overall health.

If you want to enjoy the flavor and nutrition ground cherries offer, you can simply (once they are fully ripened) harvest them, remove their papery calyx, wash them, and pop them right into your mouth. Their sweet tartness is amazing all on its own! Ground cherries also make great preserves and as chocolate covered desserts! If you would like to create a delectable side (or perhaps main) dish to dine on, try this delightful recipe:

Ground Cherry and Fig Salad

Ingredients
10 ground cherries, husked removed, washed and halved
6 fresh figs, coarsely chopped
1 cucumber, coarsely chopped
1 small red onion, cut into thin slices
¼ cup fresh mint, torn into pieces
4 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons pomegranate infused balsamic vinegar
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Directions
Combine all ingredients in a large bowl
Toss until well combined
Chill for at least 30 minutes
Serve and enjoy!

This is a light refreshing salad that’s perfect for the summer. When making this salad be imaginative! You can add basil leaves instead of mint, use dates if you can’t find figs, add some mozzarella cheese if you’d like, or mix and match other vegetables and fruit into the salad to whatever suits your palate. This is your salad, get creative!

Fascinating Fruit

If you’re as intrigued by this lovely fruiting nightshade as I am, then it’s a must have in your garden and kitchen. Plant, grow, and harvest this captivating crop and reap the many nutritional benefits and the enjoyment of its unparalleled taste. Be cautious of the ground cherries unripe fruits and leaves, but enjoy its easy growing style and appreciate all this most unique and charming plant has to offer.

Why you should grow ground cherries in your next summer garden

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Ground cherries (Physalis pruinosa) are a delicious, easy-to-grow garden fruit native to Mexico and the southern United States. Although rare in modern gardens and markets, we think this fruit deserves a place at the top of the most esteemed local & native food lists.

Ground cherries: the fruit that changed our lives

If ever there was an edible garden plant near and dear to our hearts, it’s the ground cherry. After all, this little plant helped give roots to my and Susan The Tyrant’s gardening obsession many years ago…

It all started when we went to a friend’s house for dinner. That friend is Eliza Holcombe, who is lovingly referred to as “encyclopedia head,” due to her encyclopedic plant knowledge. Eliza is a permaculture teacher, Master Naturalist, and Master Gardener (she now works with us at GrowJourney), so her ecological knowledge is awe-inspiring.

Shortly after our arrival, Eliza took us on a tour of her garden. There in a corner of Eliza’s garden, we spotted dozens of small husked fruit on the ground under a squat shrub that I’d never seen before.

“What are those?” I asked. “Ground cherries,” said Eliza. “Take the husks off and try some.”

Beautiful, golden-ripe ground cherries with the husks pulled back to expose the fruit.

I happily obliged. My eyes lit up as the flavors of the small yellow fruit exploded on my taste buds. Notes of pineapple, strawberries, tomatoes, and tropical tang ensued.

The Tyrant — never one to miss out on an exciting food experience — soon followed, and we were both equally amazed.

Numerous questions followed: What evil conspiracy had caused us to never hear of ground cherries before? Why weren’t ground cherries in every summer farmers market and grocery store? What other amazingly delicious heirloom plants were hiding in similar obscurity?

Our ground cherry experience in Eliza’s summer garden had a profound impact on shaping our life’s trajectory. When you taste your first golden-ripe ground cherry, we hope it will also have an equally profound impact on your love of plants and home-grown organic food.

Hopefully, this article will expedite your journey towards your first date with ground cherries…

Tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants are the most common nightshades in a summer garden, but consider making room for tomatillos, ground cherries, and other Physalis nightshades as well.

I. An introduction to Physalis plants & ground cherries

Perhaps because they’re rare today, there’s a lot of confusion in online articles we read about ground cherries and the genus Physalis (husked fruit in the nightshade family). You can tell pretty quickly that many of the folks writing about these plants have never actually grown them, and are instead getting their information from other people who have written about the plants without actually growing them.

One source of confusion we often see is people mixing up different species of Physalis fruit, since the plants sometimes have the same common name depending on where you live.

Three types of Physalis fruits we grow every summer. Top shows husks on, bottom shows husks off. From left to right: tomatillos (Physalis philadelphica), ground cherries (Physalis pruinosa), Incan golden berries (Physalis peruviana).

The four distinct types of Physalis fruit we’ve grown (all of which we’ve seen called “ground cherries”) are:

1. Strawberry ground cherry or just “ground cherry” (Physalis pruinosa)

Physalis pruinosa is the species of “ground cherry” we’re referring to for the sake of this article. We’ve grown ground cherries for a decade in our garden, and I’ve grown them commercially for local restaurants as well.

Ground cherries are native to Mexico and the southern United States. They’re annual, heat-loving plants that die in late summer (in our zone, 7b) after they’re done producing hundreds of ground cherry fruits. As mentioned above, ground cherries taste like magic: notes of pineapple, strawberries, tomatoes, and tropical tang.

  • plant dimensions: 2′ H x 3′ W
  • production: 2-5 pounds of fruit per plant
  • growing conditions: ground cherries tolerate poor soil and neglect much better than other summer garden plants, but will produce best with full sun, rich soil, and irrigation.

A bowl full of de-husked ground cherries.

2. Incan golden berry or Cape gooseberry (Physalis peruviana)

Sometimes also called ground cherries, we call Physalis peruviana by the common names ‘Incan Golden Berries’ or ‘Cape gooseberries’. This plant is believed to be native to South America (modern day Peru), perhaps the result of breeding work by the Incans.

Incan golden berries (Physalis peruviana) taste like tangerines and pineapples.

It’s flavor is extraordinary, and much different than ground cherries (Physalis pruinosa). It’s similar in flavor to a tangerine with notes of pineapple.

Incan golden berry’s fruits are slightly larger than a ground cherry. The plant is a perennial in our zone if winter temps don’t go below 15°F, but it takes at least a month longer to begin producing fruit than ground cherries. The fruit is also much more attractive to certain pest insects than ground cherries, so yields are smaller.

  • plant dimensions: 5′ H x 4′ W
  • production: 1 pound of fruit per plant per year (in warmer climate zones and/or with better pest control measure, fruit production would likely be much higher)
  • growing conditions: similar to tomato: full sun, rich soil, and irrigation.

3. Chinese lantern (Physalis alkekengi)

Chinese lanterns are absolutely beautiful plants that are usually grown for ornamental purposes due to their bright red husks. The Tyrant and I have made a few half-hearted attempts at growing them, and achieved half-hearted results. (We’re growing them whole-heartedly this summer and will report back.)

Chinese lantern fruit from a previous summer’s garden. The fruit are so brightly colored red-orange, that my old iPhone had trouble capturing the color.

The biggest problem in the past? Flea beetles are drawn to the young plants like magnets, and we don’t tend to baby our plants.

Chinese lanterns are perennials in mild-warm climate zones. There is some debate as to the fruit’s edibility (there is a consensus not to eat them unless they’re completely ripe). However, the plant (including leaves and roots) is sold and used as a medicinal herb in Asia where it’s native. Having eaten the ripe fruit several times with no ill effects, my continued existence attests to the fact that it is indeed edible. However, the flavor was extremely sour, so the ripe fruit is probably best cooked and sweetened.

  • plant dimensions: 5′ H x 4′ W
  • production: 1 pound of fruit per plant per year
  • growing conditions: full sun, rich soil, and irrigation (use organic insecticide on seedlings to kill flea beetles)

4. Tomatillo (Physalis philadelphica and Physalis ixocarpa)

Our second favorite Physalis fruit after ground cherries are tomatillos, due to their high productivity and how easy they are to of grow. Tomatillos are hugely popular in Latin America, and Latin American cuisine is hugely popular in our kitchen.

Tomatillo plants produce loads of fruit each summer.

There are large and small-fruited tomatillo varieties. There are also purple and green varieties. All offer an excellent, tangy-sweet flavor and all grow as annuals in our climate zone. When I’ve grown tomatillos for restaurants, I much prefer the giant green tomatillos which are much more economical to produce on a price per pound basis.

  • plant dimensions: as large as indeterminate tomatoes, 6-7′ H x 3′ W
  • production: 10-15 pounds of fruit per plant
  • growing conditions: full sun, rich soil, and irrigation

II. How to grow and use ground cherries

One of the many virtues of ground cherries is that they’re easy to grow organically relative to most other summer garden plants.

My friend, Chris Miller, holding 10 pounds of freshly picked, husked ground cherries that we grew last summer for local Greenville restaurants.

Here’s how you can grow your own ground cherries from seed:

Step 1: Starting ground cherries from seed

When

Start your ground cherries indoors in cells 6-8 weeks before your last frost date (find your frost dates here).

There are plenty of places to buy certified organic ground cherry seeds online. Here’s a source for a great variety called Aunt Molly’s ground cherry.

What

  • Be sure to start your ground cherry seeds in organic seed starting mix (here’s a good one), not potting soil. Potting soil usually has larger chunks that aren’t ideal for small seeds and seedlings.
  • Either use reusable plastic cells, biodegradable pots, or Ladbrooke soil blocks. Ground cherries aren’t very sensitive to root disturbance, so they don’t suffer transplant shock like some other seedlings do.

How

  • Sow seeds 1/4″ deep.
  • Ground cherries are heat-loving plants. The seeds will germinate best at temperatures between 75-85°F, so a seed heating mat will yield better, faster seed germination.
  • Keep the seed starting mix damp, but not wet, to help ensure good seed germination.

Step 2: Growing healthy ground cherry seedlings

Light

After sprouting, your ground cherries will need a minimum of 6-8 hours of direct light. If outdoor temps are over 60°F, you can put them outdoors. When temps are below 60°F, it’s very helpful to have a DIY indoor grow light system to keep your seedlings happy and healthy.

Nutrition

Quality seed starting mixes contain nutrients and beneficial microbes necessary to keep your seedlings happy and healthy – at least for several weeks.

If you notice slowing growth and/or yellowing leaves on your ground cherry seedlings, you’ll want to give them a boost of nutrition. We recommend using an emulsified organic liquid fertilizer like this one. Carefully follow fertilizer dilution ratios on whatever fertilizer you use because over-fertilizing your seedlings can kill them as well.

Indoor pests

When growing indoors, you might encounter two potential pest insects that can harm your ground cherry seedlings:

  • Aphids are tiny sap-sucking insects that multiply as rapidly as Mick Jagger. Left unchecked, they can quickly multiply to the point that they kill your plants. (Outdoors, predatory insects usually keep aphid populations in check.) If you have an aphid problem, use organic neem oil spray, which suffocates the aphids. Neem oil is so safe, that it’s also sold as a hair care and skin lotion for human beings.
  • Fungus gnats are tiny flies that look similar to fruit flies. The adult flies are harmless to your plants, but their larvae are root-eating jerks. If you see the adult flies hovering around your plants, that means they’re mating and laying eggs in your seedling soil. If they proliferate, they’ll eat the roots of your seedlings to the point that the plant dies. A few years back, we had a particularly bad fungus gnat infestation in our seedlings. We applied predatory nematodes to our seedling soil and a week later, no more fungus gnats.

“Hardening off”

Keep in mind that seedlings (including ground cherries) that have only been exposed to artificial light risk getting severely sunburned with extended exposure to outdoor sunlight for the first time. That’s why you’ll either want to regularly expose your seedlings to sunlight as they grow OR “harden them off” before transplanting them outdoors.

“Hardening off” simply means following a graduated sunlight exposure schedule:

  • Days 1 – 3: Place your ground cherry seedlings outdoors in a shady spot that will only get 3-5 hours of direct sunlight throughout the day.
  • Days 4 – 5: Place them in a slightly sunnier spot that will get 5-6 hours of direct sunlight.
  • Days 6 – 7: Place them in a full sun spot.

Step 3: Transplanting and growing ground cherries

After ~6 weeks and once they’ve been hardened off to outdoors sunlight, it’s time to transplant your ground cherry seedlings outdoors.

Ground cherries are closely related to tomatoes (another nightshade). Both plants have “adventitious roots,” meaning the tiny hairs on the stems will actually form new roots when they come in contact with soil. Slightly burying the stems during transplanting will help them develop a more robust root system.

Adventitious roots on young ground cherry seedlings.

If you plant your ground cherry seedlings in good compost or worm castings, they won’t require any extra fertilizer – in fact, they actually perform relatively well even in poor soils.

After transplanting, we apply about 3″ of mulch (wood chips or chopped leaves) to the soil surface around our ground cherry plants to help maintain biological soil fertility, soil moisture, and ideal soil temperatures.

A newly transplanted ground cherry seedling, mulched and ready to grow.

Mulching also makes it much easier to gather clean ground cherries at harvest time, rather than ground cherries covered in dirt.

A ground cherry plant in our front yard growing over top a winter squash plant.

Do you have to plant more than one ground cherry plant? Nope, ground cherries have perfect flowers and easily self-pollinate when their flowers are shaken by a pollinator or wind. If you only have a small amount of space, you can plant a single ground cherry and still get fruit.

Ground cherry pests

In our experience, if you keep your ground cherry plants happy & healthy (good soil, adequate irrigation, full sun), they’ll outgrow and outlive any pest insect, from white flies to flea beetles. Our ground cherry leaves often end up with quite a few tiny flea beetle holes in their leaves, but plants’ physiological response to pest insect exposure can actually lead to a boost in their nutritional composition (more nutrient-dense foods for people).

Note the tiny holes in the leaves of this ground cherry plant caused by flea beetles. The damage didn’t negatively impact fruit yields and may have helped increase the nutrition of the fruit due to the plant’s physiological response to pest exposure.

If you’re a seed saver, note that pest exposure in one generation also helps future plant generations epigenetically adapt to those specific pests, making for hardier plants adapted to your specific bioregion.

Step 4: Harvesting ground cherries

Ground cherries basically harvest themselves. How do you know when ground cherries are ripe? The husk turns brown and the fruit drops off the plant. The ripe fruit inside the husk should be golden yellow in color when ripe.

To harvest ground cherries, give the bush a gentle shake. During peak ground cherry season, this will create the delightful sound of dozens of ground cherries cascading to the ground, as you can see in the video below:

Simply peel off the papery ground cherry husk and enjoy!

Eating tip: let your freshly picked ground cherries sit 24 hours before eating them. The flavor sweetens and intensifies significantly over this time period.

Ground cherry fruit left on the ground to rot will readily reseed, becoming next year’s plants. We encourage you to save the largest fruit from your healthiest ground cherry plants to start breeding your own ground cherries.

How long will a ripe ground cherry last?

Stored indoors out of the sunlight, ground cherries can last for 2-3 weeks. For maximum storage life, leave the protective husks on the fruit until you’re ready to eat them.

They’re still edible after a few weeks, but they start to become dehydrated. There ain’t no shame in eating ground cherry “raisins.”

These ground cherries no longer have a husk on them, so they’ll need to be eaten sooner than ground cherries stored in their husks.

Should ground cherries be refrigerated? Ground cherries should not be refrigerated to maintain ideal flavor (similar to tomatoes).

How do you use ground cherries? What are they good for?

If you have more ground cherries than you can possibly eat fresh, count yourself lucky.

Pies, preserves, breads, fruit leather… there’s infinite numbers of ways you can use ground cherries. We’ve heard of ground cherry pies selling for $20/each at a local farmers market.

Our favorite ground cherry recipe is ground cherry preserves with vanilla and brandy. Pure opulence.

Tyrant Farm’s ground cherry preserves with vanilla and brandy. Recipe here.

III. Frequently asked questions about ground cherries (Physalis pruinosa)

Are tomatillos the same as ground cherries? Are cape gooseberries the same as ground cherries? Are ground cherries the same as Chinese lanterns?

No. These are all different but related fruits in the Physalis family. Please reference the breakdown between species in Section 1 of this article.

Is a ground cherry a fruit or vegetable?

Ground cherries are a fruit… technically a berry if you want to be particular about things.

Will ground cherries ripen off the plant?

Green ground cherries aren’t very tasty and it’s generally not a good idea to eat unripened nightshade fruit.

Ripe ground cherries in hand. Unripe green ground cherries on the plant.

If they’re far enough along in maturity, green ground cherries will ripen, but won’t develop as good a flavor. It’s best to only pick ripe ground cherries with brown husks that have fallen off the plant on their own.

Are all ground cherries edible?

There are lots of plants in the Physalis family that might be called “ground cherries.” See section 1 of this article for edibility of specific varieties.

Are ground cherries/physalis good for you?

Yes. Whole, organically grown fruits and veggies are good for you in general. Since they’re a rare fruit, ground cherries (Physalis pruinosa) don’t have a standardized USDA nutritional analysis.

However, independent researchers have found them to be high in fiber, protein, plus a wide array of vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. Plus, eating ground cherries makes you smile, and smiling is good for you too.

Can dogs eat ground cherries?

We can attest to the fact that other mammals — namely chipmunks and squirrels — love ground cherries. However, it sounds like ground cherries might not be good for dogs, so it’s best to take precautions (such as fencing) to keep your dogs out of your ground cherry plants.

Can I freeze ground cherries?

Yes, you can freeze ground cherries. After freezing, they’ll be suitable for cooked recipes, not for fresh eating.

Are ground cherries self-pollinating?

Ground cherry flowers are like tomato flowers in that they have both male and female reproductive organs and are self-fertile. All that’s required for pollination is a gentle breeze or an insect to shake the flower.

How do you grow ground cherries in pots?

Ground cherries grow perfectly well in pots (we grow a few every summer in pots on our back porch). Grow them just as you would a pepper or dwarf tomato plant:

  • good organic potting soil,
  • at least 1 gallon pot per plant, and
  • maintain soil moisture levels.

Sub-irrigated planters (SIPs) are a great solution.

We hope you’ll enjoy eating golden ripe ground cherries in your summer garden for many years to come!

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Ground Cherries

Have you ever had these delicious fruits called ground cherries? If not they are worth trying, this year I sold ground cherries, as it is more commonly known, at my local farmer’s markets. Most people had never heard of it before. I began to research it and decided I had to make a blog post about this amazing fruit.

WHAT ARE GROUND CHERRIES?

Ground cherries are closely related to the tomatillo and Chinese lantern, and more distantly, tomato, eggplant, potato, and other members of the nightshade family. For more on Ground Cherries check here.

WHAT DO GROUND CHERRIES LOOK LIKE?

Contrary to what the name implies, ground cherry is not related to the cherry or gooseberry family. It is grown all over the world in tropical,, subtropical, and temperate climates.

Ground cherries look like small orange pearls, approximately 1-2 cm in diameter, and are enclosed in a miniature papery husk.

WHAT DO GROUND CHERRIES TASTE LIKE?

It is sweet but slightly tart and is said to taste similar to pineapple, strawberries, mango or citrus fruits, with an earthy undertone.

GROUND CHERRIES NUTRITION

This fruit has amazing benefits for your health. It is high in vitamins A, C, thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin. The ripe fruits also have a concentration of beta-carotene. It also has significant amounts of calcium, iron, phosphorus, potassium, bioflavonoids, protein, and fiber.

Vitamin A

  • Great for vision
  • Helps immune and inflammatory systems to work correctly
  • Helps with normal cell growth and development
  • Essential for the reproductive systems

Vitamin C

  • Essential to the immune system
  • An antioxidant, which prevents damage or death of cells
  • A natural antihistamine (allergy relief)
  • Reduces the chance of stroke
  • Protects against Parkinson’s disease

Thiamin, also known as B1

  • Helps protect the nerves
  • Great for mental health
  • Essential to metabolism, especially with carbohydrates
  • Lowers chance of cataracts

Riboflavin, also known as B2

  • Necessary for iron metabolism
  • Prevents headaches/migraines
  • Maintains other B vitamins

Niacin, also known as B3

  • Raises HDL (good) cholesterol levels
  • Helps cardiac health
  • Good for treating depression, senility, and memory loss
  • Improves joint flexibility and relieves pain and swelling due to arthritis

Vitamin B12, also known as cobalamin

  • Helps children to develop properly
  • Improves mental health; may even stop Alzheimer’s disease, if caught early on
  • Greatly reduces the risk of pernicious anemia
  • Helps with cell renewal, keeping you young and fresh

On top of all these wonderful vitamins, ground cherries only have 53 calories per 3.5 oz serving, and 1 gram of fat. Because of a large amount of fiber, eating ground cherries will help you to feel full faster, keeping you from overeating and therefore helping you lose weight.

These wonderful berries have no sodium and have a low glycemic index score.

The high amount of pectin aids in absorbing calcium, which is necessary for strong bones. Ground cherries also do wonders for your cells, having anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties; it has been shown to inhibit cancer, particularly lung, colon, and liver varieties.

It is also a diuretic (meaning it helps remove water and sodium through urine) and can be used to aid fluid retention and other such issues.

HEALTH BENEFITS OF GROUND CHERRIES

In herbal medicine, ground cherries have been used to treat asthma. dermatitis, hepatitis, malaria. and rheumatism. It has been found to have some melatonin, which helps improve and regulate sleep, prevents degenerative diseases, prevents migraines, and protects against reproductive organ cancers.

There are many ground cherry recipes online, showing you ways to include this wonderful berry in your diet. It can be added to salads containing fruit or vegetables, canned, or made into a jam or sauce. Because of the high pectin content, it makes a wonderful pie or tart.

They can also be dried and eaten like raisins. Add to ice cream, or crush and swirl in for an interesting flavor combination. To add sweetness, you may prick the skin and roll in sugar. You can also try making salsa, cake, or adding to your cereal. However, it is just as nice to eat them as is. Check out my Cranberry Ground Cherry Sauce
recipe.
For More Articles, check out:

The Amazing Benefits Of Lemons

Nature’s Penicillin

Grow and Save Ground Cherry Seeds

How to Grow Ground Cherries

Commonly known as ground cherry, dwarf cape gooseberry, and strawberry tomato, this plant produces a small, yellow, edible berry surrounded by a papery husk. Ground cherries typically produce hundreds of fruit on each plant.

How and When to Start Indoors

Ground cherry plants are best started under cover and planted out. Sow seeds indoors 6–8 weeks before the last frost. Plant seeds ¼ inch deep.

Time to Germination

5-8 days

When to Transplant

Plant outdoors two to four weeks after your last expected frost. Be sure to harden off seedlings before planting outdoors. Plants prefer a rich, light, warm soil and a sunny position.

Spacing Requirements

Transplanting into the garden, space plants at least 2 feet apart. Ground cherries have a sprawling growth habit similar to tomatillos. Be sure to give plants plenty of space in the garden.

Special Considerations

If you have grown ground cherries before, you may not even need to plant this crop again as ground cherries often volunteer in the garden. Make sure that your soil is well fertilized as this crop is a heavy feeder and takes a lot of nutrients from the soil.

Common Pests and Diseases

Ground cherries are not susceptible to many bacterial, fungal, or viral diseases. However, plants do occasionally suffer damage from flea beetles, whiteflies, ground cherry leaf beetles, and mites. Keep plants regularly watered and place floating row covers over them if these pests are particularly prevalent in your garden.

When and How to Harvest

The fruits must be fully ripe to be edible. At maturity, the husks of fruits become dry and papery, and the fruits drop from the plants. Mature fruits should be collected from the ground after they have fallen. The husk is inedible and must be removed.

Eating

Ground cherries can be eaten fresh, processed into jam, and baked into pies. Their distinctive, sweet-tart taste lends itself to preserves, sauces, and tarts.

Storing

Compared to many fleshy fruits, ripe ground cherries have a long shelf life and can be held for several weeks, for both eating and seed saving.

How to Save Ground Cherry Seeds

Ground cherries typically produce hundreds of fruit on each plant so you need plant only one ground cherry plant to yield viable seeds.

Life Cycle

Annual

Recommended Isolation Distance

When saving seeds from ground cherries, separate varieties by 300–1,600 feet.

Recommended Population Sizes

You only need to plant one ground cherry plant in order to harvest viable seeds. To maintain a variety over many generations, save seeds from between 5–20 plants.

Harvesting

An individual ground cherry fruit can contain more than 100 seeds, so many gardeners stop harvesting for seed after gathering a few fruits from each plant in the population and simply continue to harvest only for consumption. It is easy to freeze husked whole ground cherry fruits.

Cleaning and Processing

For large batches: Ground cherry seeds can be processed by blending the fruits with ample water in a food processor. Remove the husks before processing to simplify the decanting process. To decant the mixture, pour the blended fruits into a larger container, add more water, and agitate the watery mash until the seeds separate from the pulp. When the seeds have settled to the bottom of the container, the pulpy water can be poured off the top, leaving only the seeds. Keep decanting this mixture until most of the pulp and any immature seeds have been discarded. The viable seeds that remain should be transferred to a very fine strainer, rinsed under a stream of water, and placed on a screen or coffee filter to dry in a cool, well-ventilated area.

For small batches: Because ground cherry fruits are soft, small batches can be efficiently hand-processed by removing husks, cutting fruits, and squeezing the pulp and seeds into a bowl. The mixture can be mashed by hand, and decanted and rinsed as described above.

Storage and Viability

When stored under cool, dark, and dry conditions, ground cherry seeds will remain viable for 4–6 years.

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Aunt Molly’s Ground Cherry Info

(Author of The Bulb-o-licious Garden)

Good golly, Miss Molly! Whatcha got growing there? Sure looks good. Well, it ought to. It’s an heirloom from way back when – Aunt Molly’s ground cherry, aka Aent Moll (Physalis pruinosa). What you may know as ground cherry, however, others refer to as wintercherry, husk cherry, poha, strawberry tomato, and sometimes pineapple tomatillo.

Ground Cherry History

Ground cherries are members of the Physalis genus, which includes the tomatillo (Physalis philadelphica). In fact, tomatillos and ground cherries are cousins, originating in Central and South America. The fruit of this plant is encased in a thin, papery husk just like tomatillo and splits when ripe, falling to the ground – get it, GROUND cherry.

Ground cherries have been grown in North America since the mid 1800’s and were popular additions in Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine. And it was here that Aunt Molly’s variety came to be, at least in the States, tracing back to the Walter Schell seed company in PA around the 1920’s. In fact, the plants were first recorded in 1837 in Pennsylvania by botanist William Darlington, who described the orange ground cherry as Physalis pennsylvanica ‘with a question mark,’ presuming it to be native to the area. It was not native, however, but believed to have been introduced from the Caribbean, like others in the genus, as early as the seventeenth century.

Apparently, though, this is a Polish heirloom – but how that came to be is beyond me. Said to be one of the more sought after and best-tasting cultivars, it has a distinctive sweet flavor reminiscent of tangerines, or as some describe as having a “pineapple citrus-like” flavor. In fact, Aunt Molly’s ground cherries are so popular that they are often used in the making of Ground Cherry pie.

Ingredients:

  • Pastry for a 2 crust 9-inch pie
  • 3 tbsp. quick cooking tapioca
  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • ¾ tsp. almond extract
  • ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • Dash of salt
  • 2 ½ cups husked ground cherries
  • 2 tbsp. (¼ stick) butter

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Line a 9-inch pie pan with the pastry and set aside. In a medium bowl, combine the tapioca, sugars, almond extract, nutmeg and salt. Sprinkle half the mixture in the bottom of the pastry shell and top with ground cherries, dotting with the butter. Top with a lattice design or other decorative top crust.

Bake for 10 minutes, then lower the heat to 350°F and bake for another 45-50 minutes, or until the crust is deep golden and the juices in the pie are bubbling up in the center. Cool before cutting, serve and enjoy!

Growing Aunt Molly’s Ground Cherries

Well, now that you know a little about its background, are you curious enough to grow it? The plant shares similar growing requirements as both tomatillos and tomatoes. You can start the seeds indoors in soilless potting mix (lightly covering) and transplant to the garden at the same time you would set for these crops.

In general, it takes around 70 days until ready to harvest. The fruit, which resembles a cherry tomato to me and possibly where the other reference in its name derives, starts out green within the greenish leathery husk, before turning yellow-orange while its husk matures to golden-brown. This husk will eventually become transparent, split and drop off the plant.

Fun Fact: The term wintercherry alludes to the way the plant was harvested in the eighteenth century. Just prior to the first fall frost, entire plants were pulled up and hung upside down to dry where the berries would keep in their husks for months, used as needed throughout winter.

Aunt Molly’s makes especially good pies, preserves and fruit salads, and the fruit can store for up to a month when left in the husks.
Special note: All parts of this plant, except for the fruit, are toxic. Anyone with known allergies to tomatoes should not consume ground cherries, or tomatillos for that matter.

Write a Review

Physalis pruinosa Though native to Central America, this heirloom was widely grown in Poland and is now on board the Slow Food Ark of Taste. Won over our trials manager Heron Breen who had previously been indifferent to husk cherries. “Sweet and zesty.” Some folks compare the flavor of these ½–¾” fruits to pineapple, some to tangerines.

A treat inside every paper wrapper! Same genus as Chinese Lantern and tomatillo, fruits ripen inside their protective husks. As clusters of berries sweeten, they turn from green to golden yellow, drop off the decorative branching plants, and reach perfection as their husks thin to a near-gossamer papery texture. The sweet berries have an indescribable flavor, great for raw snacks. Don’t eat them green––they can be a powerful emetic.

Planting: (72 days) Open-pollinated. Need filtered light and temperatures at least 75°, preferably closer to 90°, to germinate. Cover seeds with just a light sprinkling of soil and place the flats in the hottest part of the greenhouse, transplanting after last spring frost. Fertile, well drained, raised beds covered with plastic mulch promote early growth and better yields

Growing: Husk cherries tolerate a touch of frost but give up when temperatures dip below 30°. In a good year, about half will ripen in time. Will readily self sow, although volunteers never mature as quickly as those started indoors.

Strong light and cooler temperatures (60-70°F) prevent plants from getting leggy. Overwatering can cause fruit to crack

Harvest & Storage
Ripe fruit will fall to the ground
• Do not refrigerate for best flavor

Uses: This tomato has pineapple and vanilla flavor. Because of their high pectin count, they can be used for preserves, pies, over ice cream or in fresh fruit salads.