Plant Profile: Ground Cherries
The first frosts of the season have arrived, the last of the seed crops have been pulled and are currently drying in the greenhouse and our ground cherries have finally succumbed to the cold. How I'll miss my daily forays out to them, peering under each plant for the fallen, ripe fruit nestled in the straw. Ground cherries have to be one of my favourite plants in the whole gardening world! What's not to love about a plant that's easy to grow, is largely disease-and-pest-free, produces prodigious quantities of incredibly tasty fruit and takes all the guesswork out of when to harvest?Yet, more often than not, I'm met with blank stares when I offer it up to others. “What's that?” they ask suspiciously. Well, I tell them - it tastes really good; don't eat the husk; it's kind of like a tomato but not; try it – you'll like it! And they invariably do.
The ground cherry, also known as a husk tomato or cape gooseberry, is actually a relative of the tomato. Native to the eastern U.S., it has been cultivated in North America since the 17th C and was a staple in the cuisine of the Pennsylvania Dutch, who used them in soups, pies and preserves. I have never baked with them, as I like them much too much fresh from the garden. The tiny little 1/2” fruits have a solid flesh and are incredibly sweet. Each fruit develops inside a papery husk that turns brown as the fruit ripens. Because it's protected by the husk, the fruit is largely blemish-free and, once harvested, will store for several weeks inside the husk so don't remove it until you're ready to eat. The fruit has another unique characteristic: when it's ripe, it falls off the plant and onto the ground (hence the name). Harvesting is so easy – each day, I make the rounds of my plants and search under them for the fallen fruit. I find it's best to lay a solid layer of straw under and around the plants; that way, the fruits don't land on the ground and get dirty.
Ground cherries are prolific producers: 1 – 2 plants should suffice a family. The only real maintenance they require, I've found, is to watch for potato beetles. These insects like all members of the Solanaceae family and ground cherries are no exception. In early summer, they'll lay their eggs on the underside of the leaves and the hatched larvae proceed to feed on the leaves voraciously. However, I've found that a daily inspection of the plants for a couple of weeks will break the cycle. I turn over each leaf and remove those I find with either eggs or larvae. I then drop the leaves on the ground and grind them into the ground (I wear rubber boots for this, being the squeamish sort). The effort is worth it - once the cycle is broken, I find no other problems with the plants; they basically take care of themselves. Ours did well this summer despite a severe drought and were still producing loads of fruit until the hard frosts.
These plants are sprawlers, growing to 2' and spreading to 4', so give them a bit of room. They don't need staking, preferring to spread out over the ground. They like full sun. Like tomatoes, they need to be started from seed indoors 4-6 weeks before the last frost. They're not frost-tolerant, so transplant them outdoors after all danger of frost is over. 'Aunt Molly's', the variety we offer, has orange-yellow fruits and has a taste reminiscent of tangerines. It's renowned for its flavour and productivity!