I always assumed that groundcherries grew underground.
Having never eaten one or seen one, I decided to learn the truth about groundcherries.
Also known as Inca berries, golden berries, and Cape gooseberries, groundcherries are not gooseberries at all. Like tomatoes, however, they are berries. Members of the nightshade family, groundcherries are cousin to tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplant, but most people say they taste more like strawberries or pineapple.
Groundcherries (Physalis) get their Latin name from the papery bladder that surrounds the fruit. This bladder is made from the calyx. [The calyx is the green sepals that form around the base of a flower.] The common name refers to the way fruits are harvested, once they fall to the ground. There are over 75 species, all of which are native to the tropical Americas, including tomatillo (P. philadelphica). There are both edible and inedible members of Physalis. Inedible ground cherries are considered weeds.
Groundcherry plants look very much like tomato plants, but the stems are sturdier. The leaves can be oval, triangular, or lance-shaped. Like other nightshade plants, the bell-shaped flowers have five petals, with yellow, green, white, or purple centers. These bushy plants are often grown as annuals, but can be perennial, under the right conditions. The fruit is the size of a cherry and can be orange, green, yellow, or purple, with a structure much like tomatoes.
Chinese lantern (Physalis alkekengi) is an ornamental, inedible groundcherry that can become invasive. There is some talk about certain groundcherry species being toxic, but research has not consistently shown this to be true. More research is being done, mostly because there is a lot of debate about the different groundcherry species.
How to grow groundcherries
If you can grow tomatoes, you can grow groundcherries. These plants like a lot of sunshine and hot temperatures, which makes them well suited to the South Bay Area. Also, it performs well in poor soil and can be grown in containers. Start seeds in small pots 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost date, planting them 1/4 inch deep. Keep the soil moist. Seeds should germinate in 7 to 10 days. Like tomatoes, groundcherries will sprout roots from their stems, so seedlings should be planted deep enough to bury the first or second stems, after plants have been hardened off. This will give your groundcherry plants a better root system. These plants get bushy, like tomatoes, so be sure to give each plant the room it is going to need. Plants should be at least two feet apart. Irrigate regularly and be sure to top dress around the plants with aged compost. Groundcherries are heavy feeders.
Groundcherry pests and diseases
Like their cousin, the tomato, groundcherries are susceptible to aphids, spider mites, whiteflies, hornworms, cabbage loopers, flea beetles, nematodes, cutworms, stinkbugs, and slugs. Many of these pests can be thwarted with row covers. Groundcherries are resistant to many diseases, but they may be affected by verticillium wilt, fusarium wilt, curly top, tobacco mosaic virus, and alternaria.
Immature fruits are not edible. After the husks have dried and become papery, the fruit will drop to the ground. This is the fruit you should harvest. The husk is not edible and should be added to the compost pile. Groundcherries are commonly eaten fresh, or used to make jams, jellies, sauces, and pies. The fruit can also be dried like a raisin, or used in salads.
Once you have grown groundcherries in your foodscape, it is not uncommon to find them growing on their own the next summer. Birds may eat a fruit, dropping the seeds where they will, complete with its own fertilizer packet.
These tiny packets of sweet, fruity flavor are a delight!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!