Imagine a berry that fuses the savory taste of a tomato with the tropical brightness of pineapple and a familiar hint of strawberry? The tomato’s under-appreciated cousin, the ground cherry (Physalis sp.) produces berries which resemble small tomatoes, but grow gift-wrapped in a papery husk, which drops from the plant husk in the fall. The berries usually ripen to a sweet golden color but various species and cultivars ripen to a surprising array of colors. Capable of cranking out up to 100 berries per plant, the short, generally bushy plants only require the same techniques you already use to grow tomatoes. Rarely do big grocery stores bother stocking these delicacies, but if you search local stands, farmers’ markets, or of course grow them yourself, you can procure this delicious fruit for yourself.
As a plant explorer and farmer who grows and collects rare plants, ground cherries have always captured my curiosity. Over the course of my travels in the Baltimore area and Maryland alike, I found several types of ground cherries. Ground cherry plants can be found about everywhere, cornfields, the side of the road and even in the city. Finding a patch of ground cherries in the wild is easy but one must be careful with identification because not all ground cherries are edible. You must make sure the berries are fully ripe because they can have the same toxins as an unripe tomato which can make you sick.
The best varieties for eating are ‘Aunt Molly’s, Goldie,’ and New Hanover.’ If stored correctly, the berries last for possible weeks or months and their complex flavor lends itself well to jams and jellies. I personally discovered the flavor works well with English muffins they come in a variety of flavors, sweet or tart. I found one of a kind I named ‘Blueberry Pie’, which possesses a light blueberry flavor. Some ground cherry species carry medicinal properties. The husks can capture the imagination and make great ornamental additions to fall décor. A ground cherry known as the Chinese lantern plant (Physalis alkekengi) evokes the red hanging lanterns of East Asia with its scarlet husks, and in fact, calls this region it’s home. The Chinese lantern plant is also used in traditional Japanese Obon festivals.
In large numbers, ground cherries can also have a knack for attracting insect pests away from other crops in the nightshade family. Therefore, some gardeners and farmers plant it as a “trap crop” to protect other vulnerable crops from attacks by these pests.
Many heritage seed companies offer exciting varieties with colorful, storied histories. The ground cherry is a perennial in that you plant it once and it comes up year after year some ground cherries are annuals, or function as annuals because of hardiness issues, and re-sow enough to function as a perennial. The plants reseed themselves pretty well and work great for permaculture enthusiasts. If you like “do-nothing gardens,” ground cherries make your life easy”. I encourage you to embark on a culinary expedition with me and try eating or growing these next summer.