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.
From the top, the plants are pretty basic--green foliage, 10-12 inches tall, no bloom in sight.
But under the foliage, in midsummer, you'll find yellow, bell-shaped flowers.
The blooms are about one inch long, with dark purple centers.
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!)
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.
*All information in this post comes from the Robert W. Freckmann Herbarium, Organic Gardening, "Wildflowers of Wisconsin" Field Guide, Mother Earth News, and my own observations.