Real Food Encyclopedia | Ground Cherries
The ground cherry, also called physalis or cape gooseberry) is a unique fruit. With its papery husk, it looks like a small, orange tomatillo, but its flavor is uniquely sweet: to our palate, a mixture of pineapple, strawberry and green grapes — sweet, tart and vaguely tropical. They are native to North and South America, but remain far more obscure than so many of our non-native favorites.
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.
- They are members of the genus Physalis, which also includes a more savory relative, the tomatillo.
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. While they’re increasingly available in grocery stores, they are still uncommon. It’s easiest to look for them at your local farmers’ market or farm stand instead.
Sustainability of Ground Cherries
Ground cherries are usually grown on a very limited scale on fruit and vegetable farms in the US. However, they are impacted by the same types of pests as tomatoes and tomatillos, so growers may use chemicals to control outbreaks of insects or diseases. The husk of the groundcherry means that fruit is typically safe from chemical residue, but you can ask the grower about their chemical use if you’re buying them at the farmers’ market.
In the US, the fruit has a fleeting moment of seasonality in the mid-to-late summer and into early fall — after that, they’re gone until then next year. They are occasionally available in US supermarkets in the spring, but these are usually imported from the Southern Hemisphere and carry a large carbon footprint from shipping and packaging.
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 also commercially cultivated in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
Eating Ground Cherries
Kept in their papery husks, the fruit will keep in the refrigerator for at least a week, and up to ten days. Ensure that they are dry when you purchase them, as moisture speeds up the fruit’s decay.
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 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 the Smithsonian, with recipes for ground cherry salsa, 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!).
The fruit 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.
The fruit is high in Vitamins C and A, and also a good source of iron and niacin. All unripe fruits in the Physalis genus are toxic, and can even be fatal if ingested in large amounts. The leaves are also toxic.
Top photo by Dessie / Adobe Stock.