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Growing Ground Cherries 


Photo: The Spruce

By Debbie Roland and Emmy Ulmschneider, Master Gardeners 

 

Ground cherries (Physalis sp.) are easy to grow with minimal pests and diseases. Although you may not recognize a ground cherry, you might be familiar with a close relative:  tomatillos!  Tomatillos, ground cherries and their close relatives, peppers, eggplants, potatoes, and tomatoes are all members of the Solanaceae family, a family rich in food plants.   

Although tomatillos are commonly eaten as a savory, ground cherries can be eaten raw like fruit, or used in preserves, jams, jellies, or pies. Although they look like tomatoes, the small, yellow, ground cherry fruits have a tropical, pineapple flavor.   

Ground cherries originated in the Americas, where they have been cultivated for centuries.   A testament to their popularity, explorers, colonists, and immigrants quickly spread ground cherries around the world.  By the 1800’s Aunt Molly’s Ground Cherry was being grown in Pennsylvania and that cultivar is still available today.  

This plant is also called a husk tomato because when it is green, the fruit develops inside a husk. The groundcherry's genus name, Physalis, means bladder, which refers to this husk.   For us, they are annuals, and, like most vegetables, are planted in the spring.  They grow rapidly up to 3’ tall with tooth edged green leaves and creamy yellow flowers before bearing fruit.  The branches are brittle so consider growing them in a tomato cage or tie to a support to keep the branches off the ground.  It needs to be noted that the only part of the plant that is edible is the fruit; the remainder of the plant is toxic to pets and to people.   

Today, there are many hybrids and varieties of ground cherries.  They can be planted in containers, raised beds, or inground gardens in full sun to dappled shade with well-drained soil.  They grow best in warm soil, so give them time.  The good news is that they are not picky about the soil type but adding organic matter will make them happy so add compost when planting to get a good crop.  Mulching the plants with straw or compost will help you find the ripe fruits later in the season.  You can use transplants or start seeds indoors six weeks before the last frost date.  If planting seeds outdoors, seeds should be no deeper than ¼”.  Be patient it can take up to 14 days for the seeds to germinate.  Expect to harvest about 70 days later and continue until the first frost.   

The husks start to turn papery and brown when the fruits are ripe.   Some will drop to the ground, hence their name, ground cherries.  If you don’t get them off the ground the fruit will break down and gift you with seedlings everywhere.  Harvest the fruits and refrigerate for two to three weeks.  If you want to store them longer, leave the husks intact and place them in a single layer in a cool area or freeze the fruits in a single layer, repackage them in a freezer bag and store in the freezer. These plants can produce up to 300 fruits per plant, growing until the first frost.  It will only take about four plants for a family of four.   

Basil, parsley, onions, carrots, and hot peppers are all good companion plants but don’t plant close to corn, fennel, dill, or potatoes as they will compete for similar soil resources.  Like tomatoes, ground cherries are self-pollinators but will attract pollinators to your garden. Large bumble bees and some native bees are large enough to buzz pollinate.  In gathering pollen, these bees shake the flower so vigorously, that the pollen is vibrated loose and can collect on their body and be transferred to another plant.   

So, if you want to try a plant with a long history, a world traveler, content to grow in small or large spaces consider welcoming ground cherries into your garden.  

If you have questions, call the AgriLife office in Odessa at 498-4071 or in Midland at 686-4700.   Additional information, and our blog for access to past articles, is available at westtexasgardening.org.  Click on “Resources”.  


Ground Cherry Plant

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