Making sense of “Ground Cherries”!

Ground Cherry Aunt Molly's green fruitsGround Cherry having fallen offGround Cherry Aunt Molly's ripe fruits









First…adding a bit of humor…

How many names do you know for our wee flower we know as “Johnny Jump Ups“??

One source lists: heart ease, heart’s ease, heart’s delight, tickle-my-fancy, Jack-jump-up-and-kiss-me, come-and-cuddle-me, three faces in a hood, love-in-idleness…  Another says: Love-in-Idleness. Live-in-Idleness. Loving Idol. Love Idol. Cull Me. Cuddle Me. Call-me-to-you. Jack jump-up-and-kiss-me. Meet-me-in-the-Entry. Kiss-her-in-the-Buttery. Three-Faces-under-a-Hood. Kit-run-in-the-Fields. Pink-o’-the-Eye. Kit-run-about. Godfathers and Godmothers. Stepmother. Herb Trinitatis. Herb Constancy. Pink-eyed-John. Bouncing Bet. Flower o’luce. Bird’s Eye. Bullweed. And I think there were close to 29 names (not maybe including those listed above…) in an old gardening book I read…Oh heaven help us!

So having said that…wouldn’t it be correct to assume there could exist similar issues involving OTHER plants?

Spurred on by a gardening friend’s “inquiring mind”…I have decided to address the very confusing issue of our beloved…Ground Cherry.

First let me say (clear myself of any intended wrong doing)…I am NOT an expert in this field. And all I will try to do is make all this simpler to understand…lay man’s language, as they say.

As I pointed out above…one variety can have many different names;

  1. Chinese lantern – (aka strawberry ground cherry, aka winter cherry, aka Japanese lantern, aka bladder cherry, aka physalis alkekengi, etc…) As usual folks have stuck on “other” names to this one to …SELL it! The best thing to do…know it by its scientific name. Then you can be assured of the right one. B. C. seeds says it is ok to cook and simply eat! (??) First, it is VERY invasive as I discovered many years ago. Yes the fruit, according to Asian folk is edible…HOWEVER (know what you are dealing with) and use with caution!  “The dried fruit of P. alkekengi is called the golden flower in the Unani system of medicine, used as a diuretic, antiseptic, liver corrective, and sedative!”….c/o” Wiki” 
  2. Ground Cherry – Here is a name given to many varieties that look similar…such as “Husk Tomato” and “Tomatillos“, etc…bearing a papery beige husk over its fruits, including the one listed above. Here again, familiarize yourself with the “specie” scientific names. AND there is a TON of them…check this link out… ( Many Physalis species are called “ground cherries“!
  3. For the most part, I like to keep it simple. I like to place ONLY the SWEET ones in the “Ground Cherry” family! Some called “Aunt Molly“, “Pineapple“, “Cape“, “Golden“, “Yanter” and a few others… These plants are smaller, some bearing “hairy” looks. Fruits are usually eaten raw, when ripe and sweet. Used in a desert form. Essentially these highlighted names are given when a species fruit has been improved in some small way, by an individual or nature. The trouble I have is people sticking on the word “Tomatillo” to words like “Pineapple” confusing the shear heck out of regular gardeners !!
  4. To keep things simple, I like to call the “un-sweet”, meaty ones…”Tomatillos“. Varieties like “Purple Tomatillo“, “Toma Verde“, “Cisineros“, “De Milpa Purple” and “Amarylla Tomatillo“…to name a few. The plants in this group can get quite “rangy”…like 3 ft to 6 ft tall and correspondingly wider too. Leaves are relatively smooth. Fruits (very large) also tend to come in later, altho the “Purple Tomatillo” and “Toma Verde” came in quite early for me, being smaller plants…less than 3 ft. Have also noticed the papery husk will split open half way through its developing period as opposed to the “Ground Cherry” type varieties, which stays encased. These are primarily used in salsas and traditional Mexican dishes.
  5. Now…do you want to save some seed??? Dare I say ALL these varieties have the potential to cross?? Within the “ground cherries”…I will say YES! Within the “tomatillos”…I will say YES! With each other…I think more than possible. I’ll leave the “experts” to discuss this further…
  6. I believe Southern Exposure Seed Exchange has one of the best explanations!
    Tomatillos: Physalis ixocarpa 
    Ground Cherries: Physalis pruinosa    Classification and Historical Notes: Husk tomatoes have light-brown, papery husks (calyxes) that enlarge and cover the maturing fruits. The 2 most common cultivated species are the ground cherry and the tomatillo. Both have been cultivated in Central and South America for centuries, before even tomatoes. Ground cherries are so named because the cherry-sized fruits are borne near the ground. The leaves of ground cherries are hairy or fuzzy and the plants grow 1-2 ft. tall with lateral spreading growth. Tomatillos are larger-fruited, typically 1-3 in. diameter, and the plants grow 2-5 ft. tall with smooth leaves. Some varieties may grow 8 ft. or more with a ground-hugging growth habit. The Spanish name tomatillo is derived from the Indian name “tomatl.”Culture: Culture of husk tomatoes is similar to tomatoes. Ground cherries need no support, but tomatillos are best caged or trellised.Pests: In areas where husk worms are a problem, plant early-maturing varieties crops as early as possible in the spring. (Self-sown plants from the previous year’s crop often geta head start on even the earliest plantings.)Harvest: Husk tomatoes usually do not ripen fully until after falling from the plant. Larger tomatillos need to get pulled from the plants. Ground cherries ripen from green to yellow-gold. Most tomatillos ripen from green to yellow-green to pale yellow.Fruit Set: Most cultivars of ground cherry set fruit in all areas of the U.S. Tomatillos are more sensitive to heat and day length: Some cultivars may not set fruit until late summer, or may not set fruit in northern states.Preparation and uses: Ground cherries are eaten fresh, or are used in desserts, sauces, preserves, fruit toppings, pies and salads. Tomatillos are usually cooked to bring out full flavor: Simmer for 5-10 minutes in a pot of water, then use in chili rellenos, salsa verde, guacamole, or other sauces or dips.Seed Savers: Husk tomatoes self-sow easily. Isolate varieties by 300 ft. for pure seed.
  7. So now you ask…do I have a favorite one? And once again I will tell you…are you asking ME to choose one favorite from all MY children? And I will tell you…can’t do it. They all are favs. of mine…otherwise I wouldn’t/couldn’t carry them here!  AND so there “hopefully” you have it….all in a lovely papery beige husk!
    Thanks Cherie for asking….Mandy

One Comment

Cherie Toth

Hi, it’s Cherie, again. As I have said before, 2016 will be my first year of cultivating physalis. I purchased seed for about 5 of the most popular varieties. I’ve had problems growing tomatoes from seed – – – well mostly keeping them alive past the 5th-6th week. Many times they just damp off.
Physalis seed proved even more difficult due to the long germination tendencies. I began trying to sprout physalis back in October of 2015 because I wanted to know what I was up against. Let’s just say by the end of December the only thing I had successfully managed to keep alive in small numbers were the Cape Gooseberry (and they were very small seedlings that seemed to stall in growth). They were alive but that was about it. Three other varieties sprouted & died. They were more difficult than tomatoes. I was beginning to think I would have to direct sow the seed & hope for the best.
(This next part is the absolute truth & not a commercial.) My dear husband noticed my frustration @ trying & failing with the ground cherries & tomatoes. He bought me a Bounty Aerogarden for Christmas! Well, of course I wasn’t going to grow the seed kits sent with the Aerogarden! I ordered the materials to grow my own seed. And grow my own seed I did! I couldn’t believe how fast the physalis seed germinated (5-7 days) and began growing by the day, no stalling in the growth. I was so excited that I purchased 2 more Bounty Aerogardens. I took the few remaining Cape Gooseberries that I had kept alive for 2 months, washed the soil away from their tiny roots and placed them into the sphagnum moss sponges of the Aerogarden system to see what would happen. Success! Their stalled growth spell ended. The tiny plants started growing, turned fuzzier, darker green and basically started looking like a plant instead of a seedling all in a matter of days!
My Aerogardens only have space for 9 plants each but AeroGrow came out with a seed starting system where the “growing deck” has 50 openings for 50 seeds starts! I will be able to start 150 seedlings at the same time (50 per Aerogarden). Looks like I’ll be able to grow my seedlings inside after all! I’m so happy & excited. Now I can grow my 5 varieties of ground cherries plus a bunch of high brix tomatoes! No longer am I at the mercy of the local stores for what varieties I may plant. I may even try growing some of my plants to adulthood in hydroponics. If anyone out there is having the same problem with seedlings, I strongly recommend the Aerogardens. This is truly amazing! (you don’t have to print this, I just wanted to tell you about the hydroponics.)

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