On Ground Cherries
Shall we talk about ground cherries?
mmm… say you politely, really? Ground cherries?
You are not the only one to wonder… the year I gave ground cherry jam to friends for Christmas, I got some puzzled looks: this is cherry? you grind them? why? that’s an unusual color… and what about all the seeds?…
Yes, it needed a better name, and it actually goes by other names. But “ground cherry” is the name under which I initially encountered the fruit in English.
Curiously enough, it was in Quebec.
Many stores were selling ground cherry jam. I tried it. Clearly not cherries (you know, Prunus cerasus). It did not take too long to find out this was the tiny fruit of my childhood, tomate poc-poc, Physalis peruviana. It’s also goes by the name of Cape Gooseberry. But it is no more a gooseberry than it is a cherry. A close cousin of tomatillo Physalis ixocarpa), it belongs it the nightshade family, along with tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and eggplants.
The plant grows very close to the ground – hence “ground” cherry – a lot more modest than the tomatillo in its real estate needs. According to William Woy Weaver, ground cherries are hardly unknown in the US… but they aren’t well know either. He states that the Pennsylvania Amish and German grew it extensively as a cover crop between their corn, and harvested the whole plant in the fall, hanging in their cellar. The husked fruit keeps well providing fresh fruit into the Christmas season – hence another ones of its name: Winter cherry. It certainly does not start to fruit well for me until mid-September. I think it’s too hot before that. The husk should be straw-colored, or even skeletized, before the fruit is used. Often time, they fall to the ground when ripe, and that’s when I pick them. Unlike tomatillo, they taste a lot better ripe than green (and according to some sources, eating unripe fruit may cause you to visit the bathroom a lot more than you wish).
Ground cherry is sweet – unlike the tart tomatillo – and a lovely orange color when ripe. I read that pie is a traditional use for the fruit. At my house, we eat them raw in fruit salad, and make them into a lovely jam. Jam is actually how I use ground cherries most. By weight I mix 3 parts husked fruit to 2 parts sugar with a little lemon juice and simmer until jelled. And then in the jar, and process as usual (i.e. water-bath canning for long term storage, or simply refrigerate if you are only making a jar or two at a time. It’s a fruit that lends itself well to making a pint of jam here and there)
Once you have the plant, you’ll have it for ever: it self-seed copiously. Like tomatillo, as a matter of fact. I understand it is now a weed in Quebec. But what a nice edible weed! And if you can’t deal with the harvest now, unhusk the fruit, freeze and make jam in winter. It works!
The color is lovely. The flavor is unexpected – reminescent of guava and pineapple. Perfect on a cold day over a warm slice of bread and with a strong cup of coffee.