September 11, 2013

Plant of the Month: Ground Cherries

plant

This is a fun plant. I didn't know much about Ground Cherries until I discovered them recently on the "wild" section of our second property.

foliage

From the top, the plants are pretty basic--green foliage, 10-12 inches tall, no bloom in sight.

bell flower

But under the foliage, in midsummer, you'll find yellow, bell-shaped flowers.

bloom

The blooms are about one inch long, with dark purple centers.

husk2

After blooming, they form a papery husk, and inside that husk is a small berry. (Note that all parts of the plant are toxic to humans, except the berries--when they're fully ripe!)

husk

Apparently, early Pennsylvania Dutch (German) communities used Ground Cherries frequently in jams, pies, sauces, and other dishes. I seem to remember seeing them at farm stands here in Wisconsin in the past, too, but because I didn't know much about them, I didn't think to try them.

They're in the same family (Solanaceae) as Tomatoes, and the same genus (Physalis) as Tomatillos. Several species and cultivars are available, but I believe the plants I found (shown here) are Clammy Ground Cherries (Physalis heterophylla).

With a little research, I found out that the Ground Cherry plant:

  • Prefers sun, sandy soil, and good drainage;
  • Produces up to 300 fruits per plant;
  • Is native to most of the U.S. and Eastern Canada; and
  • Is a host plant for the sphinx moth caterpillar.

Harvested berries stored in their husks can last up to three months. And they last out of the husks in the refrigerator for about one week. The Pennsylvania Dutch historically pulled entire plants up by the roots and hung them in their homes as a winter food source.

Most sources say the berries are fully ripe when the husks fall to the ground. Descriptions of the taste range from "Tomato-like" to "sweet/tart" to "refreshing." Depending on the variety, you'll notice hints of Tangerine or Pineapple. I found the taste of Clammy Ground Cherries to be quite sweet, with a hint of Tomato and Pineapple, and definitely refreshing.

I wasn't able to harvest many Ground Cherries earlier in the summer, and with the recent dry weather the yield might be small. But I did pick a few to show their transition from toxic green to ripe, tasty gold.

progression

*All information in this post comes from the Robert W. Freckmann Herbarium, Organic Gardening, "Wildflowers of Wisconsin" Field GuideMother Earth News, and my own observations.

28 comments:

  1. What an amazing find, and edible too.

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    1. Yes, I'm finding lots of fun plants in that "wild" plot of land. The butterflies like it, too. ;-)

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  2. Informative post. I've heard of growing such plants but didn't know they are native and occur in the wild. They sound interesting. I have grown "Garden Huckleberries", also in the nightshade family, but they were not quite up to other berries I also grow so I stopped. I also haven't tried tomatillos either. They do sound tasty.

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    1. Garden Huckleberries sound interesting. I was reading a little bit about them and it sounds like they're toxic, too, until they're ripe. I think I've had Tomatillos before, but I don't remember what they tasted like.

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  3. I am always learning from you . . . Are these the same as what I call Chinese/Japanese Lanterns. The leaf and berry are similar.

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    1. I'm glad to hear that, Lynne. The list of plants to discover and learn about just never ends! From what I've read, Ground Cherries and Chinese Lantern plants are related--both in the Physalis Genus. But I think Chinese Lanterns are Physalis alkekengi, and they have a brighter red outer husk. I'm guessing they have slightly different flavors. Fascinating!

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  4. Oh, this brings back memories! My mother used to pick these when she could find them and make ground cherry pie. My family isn't Pennsylvania Dutch, but we are of German descent. I suspect, though, the reason for eating these had more to do with my mother's frugality--if a plant was edible, we ate it! They do have an interesting taste, but ground cherry pie has to rank down at the bottom of my pie preferences, even below gooseberry:)

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    1. I'm thinking my ancestors probably did eat these because I have Pennsylvania Dutch heritage on both sides of the family. It's funny, because I didn't know much at all about these plants until a few weeks ago. I don't think I'll have enough to make a pie, but I did like the taste fresh out of the husk (the ripe ones, of course).

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  5. This was so interesting, and for me, timely. I recently saw ground cherries at a Farmer's Market and asked, What's that??? I think of myself as pretty informed about food and I was totally clueless! I did try one, but confess that I couldn't figure out what I could do with them, so I passed. Too bad!

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    1. Yeah, it's amazing that these plants aren't more widely known. Perhaps they're more commonly eaten in Pennsylvania? I hope there are enough to pick some when I go up to the cottage again next time. I'd like to try them dipped in chocolate!

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  6. Really enjoyed this post, Beth. I was given some free seeds but never got around to planting them. Thanks for telling us about the toxic aspects of ground cherries. Had to take my husband to ER last month because of toxic sap that got on his hands and then into his eyes. He described the pain as acid in his eyes. The plant was snow-on-the-mountain (Euphorbia Marginata).

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    1. Thanks, Donna. Oh my--your poor hubby! I didn't realize E. marginata was that toxic! I have a few patches in the backyard. Thanks for the warning!

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  7. As I was reading, I thought, a new plant on me. Not so when it came to the last image. I know these as Chinese Gooseberries.

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    1. I'm not sure, but I think they're the same genus, but possibly a different species. This article discusses a lot about the different species of Physalis: http://bit.ly/188jnaz (about halfway down the page). They all look very much alike, though. Sounds like the different species and cultivars have slightly different flavors.

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  8. Per Donna's comment above, I believe all Euphorbias have toxic sap. I've steered away from planting any for that reason. Very sorry to hear about her husband's eye injury. Hope he is OK now!

    Regarding the ground cherries, have you tried growing any in your garden? I haven't tried yet, but hope to someday. I hear that Aunt Molly's is a good cultivar. Never tried foraging for any wild ones, but I do believe I had a ground cherry in Spain one time. My Spanish isn't very good, so I couldn't swear it was a ground cherry, but it certainly *looked* like one and tasted different than anything I'd ever had before. I liked it! And hope try it again sometime -- hopefully a homegrown one :)

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    1. I had heard Euphorbias are toxic, but I didn't realize it was that bad. Yikes! No, I haven't tried growing them in my garden here in southern Wisconsin. The soil isn't quite right and the other conditions aren't right. But these were growing north of here where the soil is sandy and in other ways the conditions are better for it. I've heard Aunt Molly's is good, too. I would like to try a few of these dipped in chocolate!

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  9. I have the type that have bright orange husks growing wild here. People can be sensitive to lots of plants. So many of them have their defense system. I try to avoid the really toxic ones.

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    1. Good advice, Becky! I'm pretty careful about that, too--so I would never eat a bunch of these unless I baked with them. And I would never eat them until they're obviously ripe (no green). I also will not eat wild mushrooms for the same reason, unless I'm with a mushroom expert.

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  10. Thanks for yet another great article from you, I have heard of Physalis peruviana, Cape Gooseberry also know as Giant Ground Cherry, we can buy them in supermarkets over here and grow them as annuals, although I haven’t tried that yet. I have a Chinese lantern called Physalis alkekengi var. Franchettii, and on the description it says all parts of the plant cause mild stomach upset so I haven’t tried tasting it!
    But I haven’t heard of Physalis heterophylla before, they look very similar to the Cape Gooseberries except they seem yellow and not orange.

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    1. Thanks, Helene! Yes, I'm getting the impression that there are very many species and varieties of Physalis that are edible, but only under optimal conditions. That seems to be a common theme with plants in the Nightshade family. Interesting that you have them available in your supermarkets--maybe we do, too, and I just haven't noticed them there. Fascinating plants!

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  11. Very interesting! I have never heard of these.There are many wild plants on my property, and the leaves look familiar. I will have to look more closely!

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    1. I didn't even notice the flowers/husks until I lifted up the plants to look underneath. If I get up to the property soon, it will be interesting to see how many fruits are ripe and ready.

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  12. Beth I had heard of these but had not ever seen them...I love the cherries and how they grow...very interesting plant

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    1. Yes, they're unique. And, as I mentioned, I didn't know much about them until I found them and did a little research. Another example of how you can spend a lifetime learning about plants! :)

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  13. Ooh Cape gooseberries! In my ignorance I used to think the 'Cape' meant they were ours, but I've since discovered it is that the berries 'wear a cape', the lantern. And yes, they are delicious, fresh, or as jam, or baked in a tart.

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    1. Yeah, I guess there are many different species and varieties--many of which are quite tasty. Unfortunately for me, August and early September were too dry here for this plant. Most of the berries were dried up when I checked them this weekend. I'll check again next summer. Drat!

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  14. Hello Beth, thank you for such an informative post....those cherries are completely new to me. I thought your approach of putting the three stages of development in a line like you did was so creative!

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    1. Thanks, Susie! They were new to me, too. Now that I know about them, I'll hunt for them next summer, as well. Fun plant.

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