One of my favorite things about gardening is trying new things. A few years back I read a great book by Joan Gussow called This Organic Life. It's a fabulous read that I highly recommend. She is a brilliant women and the book is an enlightening memoir as well as part time cookbook.
At one point in the book, Gussow effuses about ground cherries. As she describes them, they are small fruits that grow like a tomatillo. According to Gussow, they produce prolifically, keep for a very long time, and taste delicious. So why are they not commonplace? Why don't I have childhood memories of popping ground cherries out of their husks and intermittently eating them and throwing them at my sisters, like I have of spitting watermelon seeds at these same sisters? After having grown them for the first time last year, all I can say is, I don't know. Ground cherries are as fantastic as Gussow promises and nearly everyone we've introduced them to seems to feel the same.
Ground cherries are a member of the nightshade family, along with potatoes, eggplants, and tomatoes. When researching these little gems, I found a dizzying array of names including cape gooseberry (though they are in no way related to a gooseberry), Chinese lantern, bladder cherry, winter cherry and strawberry tomato. Some references listed them as native to the northeast of the U.S., while others suggested the plant needs subtropical conditions to thrive. Since we've had great success growing them, I would agree that ground cherries do well in our area. However, I think the confusion comes from the multitudes of names, varieties and growing habits. I can't seem to get a clear answer, but it seems the variety we grow matches the description for plain old ground cherries or cape gooseberries. The plant has a thick stalk and grows about 1-3 feet in height (though usually on the lower end). It extends several feet horizontally and produces small, yellow fruit in a husk that resembles a paper lantern.
Deciding when they are ripe is easy as the husk turns a tan color and the fruit falls from the plant. The husk protects the fruit from getting dirty. And if you miss any, not to worry. Ground cherries are excellent self seeders and you can almost be guaranteed that a new plant will sprout there next year. One of the websites I looked at spoke of the families ground cherry patch that has been thriving for four generations, though they only planted it once.
So what about the flavor? Well, that can be a difficult thing to pinpoint. Each person seems to have a different idea. I've heard it described like a pineapple flavor or maybe a very sweet tomato. Some say they taste a citrus tinge. I've often described it as grape-like, but that may be due to the shape and texture. I suppose I would lean towards a pineapple flavor, if pressed. But no matter what, I would call it delicious, even better than candy. Really. My seven-year-old scavenges ground cherries from our raised bed when looking for an afternoon snack. The ones she chomps on at the community garden give her plenty of energy to expend at the playground next door. I admit they are my go-to treat when I find myself spending a little more time than I had planned on our bed at River and Roots. Pop them out of the husk and right into your mouth.
To sum up, ground cherries are easy to grow. They will keep for up to six months in a dry, cool, well ventilated space. They self seed, which means you don't have to buy new plants or seeds every year. They taste, well, perfect really. Because of their versatility, ground cherries make excellent jam, pie, salsa, and salads. They can be dried and eaten like a raisin. If you remove the husk, they can be frozen for year round use in muffins and quick breads. I've taken to throwing them in with my husband's lunch, as I would any fruit. They are divine as Mother Nature intended them, but as I mentioned, they are prolific. If you're a little overwhelmed with your ground cherry harvest try making a unique dish to wow your friends. You can dip ground cherries in chocolate for a decadent treat or try your hand at a ground cherry salsa that I stumbled across.
Ground Cherry Salsa
1 cup ground cherries, cut in half
1 cup cherry tomatoes, cut in half
1 cup tomatillos, diced
1/4 red onion, diced
1 clove garlic, crushed
salt and pepper to taste
optional: jalepeno, cilantro, green chilies
Remove husks from ground cherries and tomatillos and wash with tomatoes. Mix all ingredients in a bowl and let sit for 1/2 hour for flavors to blend. Serve and enjoy!
Laurie Nigro is a mother of two, wife of a gardener, and co-founder of River and Roots Community Garden. Laurie resides downtown and though she came to gardening by accident, has welcomed it into her life.