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.
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.
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
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
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!
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.
Morton, J. 1987. Purdue University. Fruits of warm climates. Cape Gooseberry. Physalis peruviana L. Physalis edulis Sims. p. 430–434. https://hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/morton/cape_gooseberry.html
North Carolina State University Extension. College of Agriculture & Life Sciences. North Carolina State University. Physalis spp. https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/all/physalis-spp/