If you’re looking for a new gardening adventure, consider growing ground cherries. Delicious, nutritious and easy to grow, ground cherries bear sweet yellow berries enclosed in papery husks. The spreading plants shade out weeds and produce non-stop for weeks in late summer.
Sometimes called strawberry ground cherries or husk tomatoes, the most garden-worthy species, Physalis pruinosa, is native to Mexico. It went on to earn local fame in home gardens around the world. The popular Aunt Molly’s variety is a Pennsylvania heirloom, Cossack Pineapple was selected in Poland, and Goldie comes from Austria. These and other varieties classified as P. pruinosa are easy to grow in any climate warm enough to grow cherry tomatoes. Also popular is its similar cousin Physalis peruviana which is variously known as Inca berry, Cape gooseberry or, confusingly, ground cherry.
Ground cherries are hugely popular in children’s gardens because kids love to harvest and eat them. Remarkably sweet and fruity with tropical notes and a bare hint of tomato, ground cherries are great when simply eaten fresh. They are a good source of vitamins A and C and several antioxidants, and neither sugar nor cooking are needed to make ground cherries fun to munch. As on-site garden snacks, they compare quite favorably with spring peas or blueberries.
Growing Ground Cherries
Ground cherry seedlings are not commonly available, so you will probably need to grow your own. The tiny seeds have hard coats that make them slow to germinate, so it’s best to start them about two weeks before you start tomatoes, or six to eight weeks before your last spring frost. Warm temperatures above 70°F (21°C) support strong germination, so use a heat mat or other warming set-up to get the seeds up and growing. Grow seedlings under bright lights indoors, and harden them off gradually, just like tomatoes.
Ground cherries grow best in fertile, well-drained soil, but they do not need high levels of nitrogen. Amend each planting hole with good compost and a label-recommended amount of an organic plant food. Set out plants after the soil has begun to warm, and use cloches or tunnels if necessary to protect plants from cold spring winds.
Unlike related plants that grow upward, toward the sun, Physalis pruinosa spread their branches horizontally, with some upright growth developing later in the season. The fruits drop to the ground when they are ripe, so covering the ground with cardboard or another mulch helps to keep them clean. Mulch also helps moderate soil moisture, which is important. One of the few things that can go wrong with ground cherries is excessive splitting when soil suddenly goes from dry to wet. If soil is kept lightly moist at all times, splitting should not be a problem.
Do keep an eye out for tomato hornworms. If you see leaves missing from stem tips, look for a trail of pebbly frass to lead you to the hungry hornworm. Easier yet, use a black light flashlight to locate hornworms at night.
Growing Ground Cherries in Containers
You can definitely grow ground cherries in containers. Allow one plant per 10-gallon (40 liter) pot, grow bag, or half barrel. Placing containers slightly high, to increase clearance between the branches and the ground, makes gathering the fruits super easy. Raised containers are always best when growing ground cherries in children’s gardens because the kids are less likely to damage the branches when scurrying after the fruit.
Harvesting Ground Cherries
Ground cherries fall from the stem when they are ripe, and their husks protect them from the elements for a few days. Gather ground cherries every two to three days by gently lifting the branches with one hand while scooping up ground cherries with the other. When plants are grown in raised containers, you can use a broom to sweep up the fallen fruits. Ground cherries that are not eaten right away can be kept at room temperature for up to a week in their husks. Remove the husks and rinse ground cherries before preserving them or using them in recipes.
Using Ground Cherries in the Kitchen
There are endless recipes for using ground cherries in sweet treats including coffee cakes, cobblers and pies. But they also work well in salads, pair beautifully with nutty cheeses, and even make an interesting topping for yogurt or cereal. Ground cherry salsa made with summer tomatoes and peppers is addictively good, and roasted ground cherries soften into a sweet and savory spread for bread.
When you’ve had enough fresh ground cherries you can preserve them as jam, more salsa, or a spicy chutney, but there is no hurry to get them into jars. Simply freeze ground cherries on cookie sheets and store them in an airtight container until you are ready to use them.