How to Grow Ground Cherries
If you've never heard of ground cherries, give them a try. These orange-yellow fruits add a sweet, tart flavor to foods and make a healthy snack.
Want a tropical taste for your table? Grow ground cherries (Physalis pruinosa). You might hear them called husk tomatoes, strawberry tomatoes or even Cape Gooseberries (which is a different species, Physalis peruviana), but they're not true cherries or berries.
What is a Ground Cherry, and What do Ground Cherries Taste Like?
These little-known fruits belong to the Solanaceae family, like tomatoes. Some people describe their flavor as tangy-sweet, like pineapples, strawberries and green grapes. Others say they’re tart-sweet, like pineapples with a hint of tomatoes. They’re small, orange-yellow fruits that ripen inside tan, papery husks, much like tomatillos, their relatives.
These annual plants have green leaves with toothed margins and single, yellow, self-pollinating flowers that open in summer. At maturity, they're 1 to 3 feet tall and wide, but they sprawl, so give them room. They can take up to 3 square feet of space per plant.
Not many gardeners grow ground cherries, perhaps because their fruits ripen individually and drop to the ground at different times — that's why they're called ground cherries. Native to Central America, they're hardy in zones 4 to 8, fast-growing and aggressive. Some wild ground cherries in the Central Plains states are considered invasive weeds, and all parts of the plants, except their fruits, are toxic to people and animals.
Don’t let this discourage you from planting ground cherries. They’re easy to grow and high in vitamins A and C, iron and niacin. Use them in salsas, salads, sauces, tarts, jams, crumbles, pies and cakes, or as a topping for cereal, ice cream and yogurt. To snack on them, remove the husks, rinse them and pop them into your mouth
Save extras in freezer bags for a few months or refrigerate them for up to two weeks. One note: Ground cherries aren’t usually sold in supermarkets, so look for them at a farmer’s market or roadside stand or grow your own.
How to Grow Ground Cherries
Plant ground cherries in the spring in your garden or raised beds. They'll also grow in containers at least 8 inches deep and filled with potting mix. Use containers with drainage holes.
Ground cherry plants need at least six hours a day of full sun. They can take some shade but will produce less fruit.
If your soil is low in nutrients, mix in some fruit and vegetable fertilizer when you plant or amend it with compost.
Ground cherry plants like well-draining, sandy or loamy soils with a pH of 6.0 to 6.5.
Keep the soil moist and give the plants at least an inch of water a week if rainfall is scarce. Don’t water from overhead since wet leaves are more susceptible to diseases.
Use 2 or 3 inches of mulch to help suppress weeds and retain moisture. Mulch also helps keep the fruits clean when they ripen and drop.
If needed, stake the plants or support them with tomato cages as they grow.
How to Propagate Ground Cherries
Start ground cherry seeds indoors six to eight weeks before your last spring frost. Plant them 1/8 inch deep in seed-starting mix or as directed on the seed package. When the weather is reliably warm, harden off the young plants by moving them outside to a sheltered spot for an hour on the first day. Gradually increase their exposure to outdoor conditions over a week or so before transplanting them.
You can also propagate ground cherries from 4- to 6-inch cuttings. Remove all the leaves from the cuttings and dip one end of each in rooting hormone. Put them into pots of soilless potting mix and keep them moist and in bright, indirect light. Roots should appear in about two weeks. Like plants grown from seeds, harden them off before transplanting them. Space plants about 2 feet apart.
Cuttings and seeds can also be started directly in the garden when the soil temperature is reliably warm and all chance of frost has passed.
Ground Cherry Pests and Diseases
Few pests and diseases bother ground cherries, but if whiteflies, mites or flea beetles show up, put floating row covers over your plants. Pick off and destroy small, black-and-yellow striped leaf beetles and watch for hornworms. Keep ground cherry plants healthy with good growing practices.
Verticillium wilt is a fungal disease that occurs in warm, wet conditions, making lower leaves turn yellow, die and drop. Keep ground cherry plants well-fed and watered to minimize damage, and remove partially wilted plants so spores can’t survive in the soil and spread.
How to Harvest Ground Cherries
Ground cherries aren’t edible until they’re completely ripe and fall right off the plants.
Put containers, old towels or tarps on the ground to catch them when they drop. One mature plant can have hundreds of fruits and flowers at one time and the fruits will ripen individually.
Remove the husks and rinse the fruits before eating or using them.
Ground Cherry Varieties
'Aunt Molly's' is probably the most popular and easiest variety to find as a transplant. This Polish heirloom is sweet and slightly tart. Thanks to its high pectin content, it's great for making preserves.
'Cossack Pineapple' or 'Pineapple,' as you'd guess, has a sweet, pineapple taste.
'Mary’s Niagara' ripens early with a mild sweet flavor. Plants spread 3 to 4 feet.
'Drott’s Yellow' is prolific, with very sweet fruits that are good for eating fresh. They're ready in 55 days from transplanting.
'Loewen Family Heirloom' fruits are sweet and tangy. This heirloom type has been passed down through at least four generations. Fruits are ready in 80 days from transplanting.
'New Hanover' ground cherries are sweet and fruity, not tangy. These heirloom seeds take seven to 21 days to sprout.