It is a real mystery to me why ground cherries (also called cape gooseberries - more on nomenclature below) aren't more popular. Their flavor is uniquely sweet: to my palate, a mixture of pineapple, strawberry and green grapes - sweet, tart and vaguely tropical. Could it be that the papery husks that enclose them is enough to discourage people? Ground cherries are native to the US, but remain far more obscure than so many of our non-native favorites. One thing is for sure - if you are willing to go the extra mile to de-husk these orange beauties, you will not be disappointed.
A Brief History
First: a bit on naming conventions. Ground cherries (Physalis pruninosa) are native to North America, and are also known as strawberry tomatoes and husk tomatoes (not to be confused with their relatives, tomatillos - more on that below). Cape gooseberries (Physalis peruviana) are thought to be native to Peru and other parts of South America. The two are very, very similar in both appearance and flavor, and in reality, the two names (ground cherries and cape gooseberries) are used interchangeably to refer to the fruit, which is generally yellow-orange, about the size of a large marble and enclosed in a papery husk.
According to the Oxford Companion to Food, there are several different types of ground cherries that were eaten by Native Americans, and later by early American settlers. In her excellent article on ground cherries in Edible Omaha, Liz Granger describes several different ways Native American groups enjoyed the sweet-tart fruit: as a relish; in combination with onions, chile paste and coriander (a Zuni specialty); and fresh out-of-hand (the preference of the Omahaa tribe). She goes on to describe the fruit's importance to early Great Planes pioneer settlers - because they are annuals in most parts of North America (i.e., they grow in one season), they gave fruit right away, unlike the now-more-popular cherries, apples and other stone fruits, which generally require several years until they produce. Ground cherry jam and ground cherry pie were early-settler favorites. Cape gooseberries, although native to South America, got their name from the Cape of Good Hope. They were introduced to South Africa in the early 19th century, and quickly became popular there. From South Africa, the fruit was introduced to Australia and New Zealand. As with the early American pioneer settlers, early European colonists in Australia valued the fruit because it was one of the few fresh fruits available at the time, as this article points out.
- Liz Granger notes that several types of native ground cherries in the Central plains of the US are considered an invasive weed.
- "Poha" or "poha berry" are the Hawaiian names for the fruit. They were introduced to the islands in the early part of the 19th century and have since become naturalized in some areas.
- The name "ground cherry" supposedly comes from the fruit's tendency to drop to the ground when ripe. (And also their cherry-like size?) "Husk cherry" is yet another name for the fruit.
Ground cherries are not related to gooseberries at all, but are cousins with tomatillos (Physalis ixocarpa) and the ornamental, and quite lovely, Chinese Lantern. They are in the Nightshade family, which boasts illustrious members such as tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and potatoes. Most species of Physalis, including ground cherries and cape gooseberries, are annuals in temperate areas, but perennials in tropical regions. They grow much like tomatoes and tomatillos - left on their own, they will vine and spread widely throughout the garden, but do well when staked. The fruit is ripe when the husk turns papery and straw-colored, or when the fruit falls off the vine. Cape gooseberries are commercially cultivated in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
In the US, ground cherries have a fleeting moment of seasonality in the mid-to-late summer and into early fall - after that, they're gone until then next year.
Ground cherries are a niche fruit in the US, and thus don't make much of an environmental impact here. However, there are several pests that affect the plant, and thus pesticides may be used. Check with your local ground cherry farmer to find out about his/her growing practices if you're concerned. (*And check out or Real Food Rule of Thumb, below, for more information.)
Characteristics and What to Look For
Both ground cherries and cape gooseberries are generally sold in their husks; the husks should be papery and straw-to-tan colored (much like a tomatillo husk). The fruit inside the husk is golden orange in color and often covered with a slightly sticky substance that should be washed off. Ground cherries and cape gooseberries are sweet-tart, with a unique flavor that is vaguely tropical. It's fairly unlikely that you'll find the fruit in a conventional grocery store, look for them at your local farmers' market or farm stand instead.
Nutrition and effects on the body
The fruit is high in Vitamins C and A, and contain decent amounts of niacin. They also contain a bit of iron and protein. All unripe fruits in the Physalis genus are toxic, and can even be fatal if ingested in large amounts. The leaves are also toxic.
What to Do with It and Cooking
While you are more likely to stumble upon a dessert recipe utilizing ground cherries or cape gooseberries, the fruit also excels in savory dishes. I like to halve or quarter them and toss them into salads - they are divine with a bit of goat cheese. They are also fantastic in savory cold grain salads, especially in combination with farro (or wheat berries) and nuts. Here's a great recipe from Martha for a ground cherry panzanella (bread and tomato salad), which I think is genius. Ground cherries make unique baked goods, like in this ground cherry and pineapple crumble, this ground cherry pie and this ground cherry clafoutis. Or make these delightful looking chocolate-covered ground cherries, with the husk artfully folded to make a cute handle for eating. They're great as a topping for cereal, ice cream and yogurt. Here's a great ground cherry recipe roundup from Smithsonian, with recipes for ground cherry salsa, ground cherry upside-down cake and a ground cherry caprese salad. But my very favorite way of eating them is raw (after getting them out of their pesky husk, that is!).
Kept in their papery husks, ground cherries will keep in the refrigerator for at least a week, and up to ten days. Ensure that your ground cherries are dry when you purchase them, as moisture speeds up the fruit's decay.
Stretching your fresh food dollar though preservation
Ground cherries can be frozen with ease - just husk, rinse and dry them, then stick them on a cookie sheet and freeze until solid. Stick the frozen berries in zip-top bags and enjoy the fruit all winter! Ground cherries and cape gooseberries also make fantastic jam - here's a great recipe. And here is a recipe for sweet or savory dried ground cherries.
Ground Cherry, Coconut and Lime Popsicles
There is nothing better on a hot day than a homemade popsicle! I find ground cherries to taste a bit pineapple-y, so I've paired them with a bit of coconut and lime to play up their tropical flavor. If you don't like chunky bits in your popsicles, the coconut can be easily omitted. Add a tablespoon or two of rum (but not too much, or the popsicles will be too soft) to make them more adult-friendly.
The number of popsicles you can make with this recipe obviously varies based on the type of popsicle molds you use; I used the Zoku, which makes popsicles in just a few minutes (perfect for someone like me who needs instant gratification), but any type of popsicle mold will do. In a pinch, make them old-school style by pouring the popsicle mixture into ice cube trays and sticking toothpicks in as they start to set.
1 pint ground cherries, de-husked and rinsed
2-3 tablespoons sugar (or less or more to taste, depending on how sweet your ground cherries are)
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 teaspoon lime zest
1⁄3 cup unsweetened flaked coconut
Pinch kosher salt
- Slice the ground cherries in half and place in a medium bowl with the sugar and lime juice. Toss gently to combine and let sit for at least 15 minutes, and up to an hour, to allow the juices to run, stirring occasionally.
- Add the ground cherry mixture, lime zest, coconut flakes and a small pinch of salt to a blender or the bowl of a food processor. Combine until smooth.
- Pour into popsicle molds and freeze according to the manufacturer's instructions.
(*Real Food rule of thumb : We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG's guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them - agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry's tendency toward large monocrops.)
This post was originally published in August 2014.