In the Solanaceae family, directly related to tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplant is a delicious little orange gem with many names: goldenberry, husk cherry, ground cherry, Cape gooseberry, strawberry tomato, poha Berry and Cossak pineapple, yet this little fruit is not a cherry nor a pineapple.
Physalis pruinosa, otherwise known as husk cherry or ground cherry, grows in the Northeast. It’s larger cousin, Physalis peruviana, is a tropical variety that is grown in Hawaii and Mexico and transported to our grocery stores in clam shells labeled as “Goldenberries”.
Both Physalis varieties are native to Mexico, Central, and South America. The history of their cultivation can be traced back to the Inca. Physalis berries found their way to England in 1770s and then were taken by colonists to South Africa in the early 1800s. They were fairly recently introduced to the United States. Fall is when you start seeing them available at farm stands and on store shelves.
The name Cape gooseberry (Physalis peruviana) is confusing since it is not related to the true gooseberry in the ribes family. The “cape” refers to the calyx, or the poisonous outer husk, which acts as a protective cape around the fruit. The other names reflect the nicknames it has been given in the different regions it grows around the globe. It is a tender perennial meaning it is an annual in temperate regions like our own, or perennial in the tropics. The stalk and branches are soft-wooded, ribbed and covered in soft hairs. The leaves are heart shaped and velvety compared to their cousin, the tomatillo. The entire plant is poisonous except for the ripe berries.
After the yellow, bell shaped flowers are pollinated they fall off the branch and the calyx (the cape) forms and expands. They are straw colored husks that hide the berry which takes 70-80 days to mature. The smooth, waxy fruit is orange-yellow when ripe and contains lots of little yellow seeds. As the fruit ripens, it drops to the ground and continues to mature. The calyx is not edible, so it needs to be peeled off before you pop that juicy explosion of tropical flavored goodness into your mouth. It tastes like a cross between pineapple and mango with a hint of tomato.
Physalis is ideal for the lazy gardener. This plant thrives on neglect, in fact, it grows better in poor soil than in nutrient rich, fertilized soil, which causes excessive foliage growth. It does require regular watering, but resents wet feet, so be sure to plant it where it has good drainage and full sun. When happy, it will produce an abundance of fruit that self-seed. You will only have to plant Physalis once. It will then reappear year after year all around your garden. As the little seedlings emerge in early summer, you can transplant them where you prefer them to grow and weed out the others.
The fruit should be harvested once it falls on the ground, however most are of varying stages of maturity. You know they are ripe when the husk turns from light green to a papery brown. Unripe fruits are green and are very sour. The ripe fruit can be eaten out of hand or used in a number or recipes. The high pectin content makes them a good preserve, jam, or dessert topping. They can be baked in pies or tossed into muffins or added fresh to salads. The fruits can also be dried like raisins. Physalis berries have a long shelf life and can stay fresh if kept wrapped in their protective capes for up to three months.
These little bursts of sweet sunshine are super foods loaded with vitamins and minerals. They contain more antioxidants than broccoli, apples, and pomegranates and more vitamin C than lemons. They are also high in vitamin A and are thought to improve eyesight. High in iron, Physalis berries contain phyto-chemicals, which help to regulate high blood pressure. The pectin fiber keeps bad cholesterol levels in check. The high calcium and phosphorus levels are good for bone strength. They are low in fat and calories and fiber rich, aiding in digestion and preventing constipation.
Ground Cherry Salsa
Sweet and tangy, similar to salsa verde
1 cup husked ground cherries (or Cape gooseberries)
1/2 cup chopped red onion
1/4 cup chopped jalapeno peppers
2 cloves chopped garlic
2 cups chopped, seeded yellow tomatoes
1/4 cup fresh cilantro
1 fresh lime, juiced
Salt and pepper
1 tsp apple cider vinegar
Put all ingredients in a food processor and pulse until blended. If you want a smoother salsa, blend until smooth.
This salsa is also terrific if you cook it. After you have processed all the ingredients, pour into a sauce pan and simmer for 10 minutes. It brings out a richness in the salsa, which I think enhances the flavor. Once cooled, pour into a mason jar and store in the refrigerator for up to one week. If it’s cooked, it will last a little longer.
Ground Cherry Preserves
Physalis berries contain lots of natural pectin so there is no need to add any extra to this jam recipe. It’s also very flexible so you can make a little or a lot depending on the amount of berries you have. It’s a half cup of sugar to one cup of berries (more sugar if you like sweeter).
2 cups quartered ground cherries
1 cup light brown sugar
2 T fresh lemon juice
¼ cup water
Two clean pint jars with lids
Pour all ingredients in a heavy bottomed saucepan. Bring to a simmer on medium heat and then turn down to low. Let simmer for approximately 30 minutes. Stirring often to make sure it does not stick. Once it thickens to the point where running a spoon through the jam leaves a well that takes a few seconds to close up (I call this the “parting of the sea” stage), turn off the heat and quickly fill the mason jars. Let cool and refrigerate for up to one month. If you want to store the jam, you will need to boil them in a water bath for 10 minutes.
Dark Chocolate Dipped Snitch
When using the larger cousin, goldenberries, you will need toothpicks. With the smaller, more common ground cherry, you want to peel the husk back and create a natural handle at the top of the fruit, resembling wings (think of the Snitch from Harry Potter).
1/2 package of semi-sweet chocolate chips (I use Ghirardelli because I like how it melts smoothly)
1 quart box of ground cherries (or two clamshell boxes of Goldenberries)
In a double boiler, fill the bottom pot halfway with water, then add chocolate chips to the top pot (or you can use a metal bowl). On medium heat, let the water simmer and the chocolate melt until it’s smooth and silky. Remove from the heat and using a toothpick, or wings, gently dip and roll the berry in the melted chocolate. Twirl it around in the air above the pot to allow the excess chocolate to drip off, then place on the wax paper. Chocolate takes a few hours to cool and become solid at room temperature so you can place them in the refrigerator for a quicker set. Do not put them in the freezer! Enjoy