Real Food Encyclopedia | Ground Cherries

Why aren’t ground cherries (aka cape gooseberries) more popular? Their flavor is uniquely sweet: to our 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 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). 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.

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Fun Facts about Ground Cherries:

  • 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.

What to Look for When Buying Ground Cherries

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.

Sustainability of Ground Cherries

Ground cherries are a niche fruit in the US, and thus don’t make much of an environmental impact here.

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.

Ground Cherry Seasonality

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 and Geography

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.

Eating Ground Cherries

Storing Ground Cherries

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.

Cooking with Ground Cherries

While you are more likely to stumble upon a dessert recipe utilizing ground cherries or cape gooseberries, the fruit also excels in savory dishes. You can 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 Stewart for a ground cherry panzanella (bread and tomato salad), which is a genius idea. 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 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 our very favorite way of eating them is raw (after getting them out of their husk, that is!).

Preserving Ground Cherries

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. And here is a recipe for sweet or savory dried ground cherries.

Ground Cherry Nutrition

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.