Don’t let the name fool you—ground cherries have very little in common with those juicy red treats whose blossoms inspire festivals. In fact they’re part of the nightshade family and are related to tomatillos and Chinese lanterns. Like those plants, ground cherries (Physalis peruviana) grow in a protective paper husk.
These marble-sized, orangey fruits have a unique flavour, which is sometimes described as tasting similar to anything from pineapple or cherry to kiwi and tomato. “It’s a unique-looking plant,” says Angus Mellish, seed manager at Veseys Seeds in P.E.I. “And they’re a very under-appreciated garden vegetable!”
Canadian seed companies tend to sell the Aunt Molly’s variety of ground cherries, which comes from Poland. It does well in cooler climates and matures faster than other varieties. Aunt Molly’s has a more citrusy flavour than the Cossack Pineapple variety, which tastes more like an actual pineapple. The Goldie variety will yield more ground cherries per plant, but takes longer than Aunt Molly’s to mature.
How to grow
If you’ve had success with tomatillos, you’ll have a good idea of how to grow ground cherries; they’re cultivated much the same way. You can start ground cherries from plants, but they’re not often easy to find in greenhouses. Starting from seed may be your best bet, but give your plants a good head start: Veseys’ growing guide suggests planting seeds indoors eight weeks prior to transplanting.
Give your ground cherries plenty of room to grow by spacing seedlings 24 to 36 inches apart after all risk of frost has passed.
Where to grow
Ground cherries can be grown in containers, but Mellish says they prefer to be right in the ground. Beware when planting in your garden, though: ground cherries will reseed themselves and can be hard to eliminate if you decide you no longer want to grow them.
If you’re short on space, a big pot on your deck will do, as long as the soil drains well and you keep your plant moist, fertilized and in a sunny location.
Mellish says although ground cherry plants will grow to the size of a tomato bush, they don’t need to be staked because they have strong stalks. Expect plants to grow to about 90 cm tall and have a wide spread.