Recipe: Ground cherry (Physalis) jam

This time last year, I began harvesting piles of ground cherries (also known as cape gooseberries, Physalis ‘Cossack Pineapple’). The tiny fruits grow in a husk, like the tomatillos to which they are related. When the husk turns dry and brittle and the fruits are golden without a hint of green, they’re ripe and ready to eat. They’ll often fall off the bush when they’re ready, which is why they’re called “ground cherries.”

husks and fruit

Ground cherries grow encased in calyces that turn brittle when the fruit is ripe.

The plants grew exponentially in the hot weather and set fruit faster than I could pick it. But, having never grown nor eaten them before–I do love an experiment–I didn’t know what to do with them. I can certainly recommend eating them like popcorn. They’re exceptionally high in vitamin C and make a terrific snack.

ground cherries physalis fruits in bowl

The peeled fruit of ground cherries (Physalis sp.).

Craving variety from eating them out-of-hand, I began experimenting with canning. Appalled by the amounts of sugar most recipes directed me to add, I turned to Pomona’s Universal Pectin, which permits the cook to cut the amount of sugar in the recipe by about half.

I began, logically, with Pomona’s recipe for Ground Cherry Jam but wanted to give it some flair. Taking a cue from recipes I’ve seen combining stone fruits and rich spices (cinnamon plum, vanilla peach, etc.), and inspired by another combination I saw online once but can no longer find, I split open a bag of chai tea (yes, redundant) and dumped the leaves into the pot in Step 5 of Pomona’s recipe, when the fruit is brought to a boil (I added the tea, then the pectin mixture). The leaves and spices were finely ground, but you may break the bag into a ramekin and sift out larger pieces before adding it to the jam, if you wish.

I stirred it well, then proceeded to fill the jars and boil as directed.

physalis jam

The finished product.

It is absolutely delicious; a lovely combination of bright citrus and smoky spice.

Garden log, 3.11.15

Moved two blueberry bushes today. They’re loaded with buds, so I might have planned the timing of this project a bit better, but I hope this new location will be, um, fruitful.

Moved and divided Christmas ferns yesterday. Amazed at how brilliantly these plants grew with absolutely no help from me. Now they’re in a spot where they’ll get more attention. Can’t wait to see what becomes of them next.

On a walk-around late this afternoon, I spotted this:



Do you know what these wormy little things are? The unfurling leaf buds of Sanguinaria canadensis, also known as bloodroot. One of my very favorite spring epherals. It’s a bit early for them, I think, but I am glad to see them anytime.

Dear Friend and Gardener: August 1, 2014

Dear Friend and Gardener,

How on earth can it be August? The summer is flying by, and I must start thinking about my fall garden. Already I am somewhat behind (what else is new?).

This past week I planted baby bush lima beans and pulled out the ‘Contender’ bush beans. The flea beetles abused the ‘Contenders’ horribly; next year I’ll do a better job of protecting them at the outset. I have two small eggplant growing, but something’s making eyelet out of the leaves. I do hate to spray but it may be time to pull out the neem oil. Oh, how it smells!

flea beetle damage beans

Flea beetle damage on ‘Contender’ bush beans

The tomatoes, however, are performing well. We’ve had cooler weather lately, in the mid-80s, which means the plants have a better chance of setting fruit. While the fruits do taste better when they ripen hot, I have to wonder, how hot is hot? What’s the optimal temperature for good-tasting tomatoes? The other challenging factor is that we’ve had lots of rain. I have to really keep an eye out and harvest the ripened fruits before they split.

I got my first fig on Wednesday! It was, I tell you, the best fig I have ever eaten. Do you grow figs? I intend to plant another one this fall because I have heard that they set better when there is another fig close by. And I also have ambitions to grow some more blueberries. Well, I have lots of ambitions.

One of my lingonberries died during a heat wave but the other is chugging along nicely. I’m starting kale this weekend and some lettuce as well. I should make room for carrots, garlic, and shallots. I’m fortunate to be able to harvest food year-round here, if I get organized in late summer and through the fall. How long is your harvest season?

Hope the weather is treating you well and the late blight stays at bay.

Best,

Amy

 

Tropical punch: Ground cherries offer strong flavor in a tiny bite.

ground cherries (Physalis pruinosa)

Related to tomatoes, and more closely to tomatilloes, the ground cherry (Physalis pruinosa) goes by many names, including ground tomatoes, husk cherries, and cape gooseberries.

The fruits grow under the plant’s large leaves, encased in a thin calyx that dries to a crispy, papery husk. The husk and fruit fall to the ground when they are ripe (hence the name).

husks and fruit

Ground cherries grow encased in calyces that turn brittle when the fruit is ripe.

Large fruits measure about the size of an adult woman’s thumbnail, with a texture resembling a firm grape, and taste strongly of pineapple. I look forward to experimenting with them in cooking, if I can stop eating them by the handful, like popcorn.

In my Zone 7b garden, I transplanted seedlings about one month after the average last frost, or mid-May, and got my first fruits about six weeks later. This plant does like it hot–it seemed to double in size every day the temperature hit 90 degrees or higher.

For those who practice permaculture, this plant seeds itself easily and seems to require no inputs except for hot sunshine and whatever rain may fall. Do allow space for them–halfway through the growing season, mine are five feet tall and wide–or were, before the 8-year-old ran over a few inconvenient stems with a bicycle. The stems are rigid but not woody, a bit like basil in mid-season, and may crack or break under their own weight. Because my space is limited (and shared with bicycles), my plants are now supported with slings of garden twine, tethered to a bamboo pole.  You could perhaps grow lettuce beneath them, or root vegetables, if you wished to implement companion planting.

This is a fruit that has made it into my garden’s permanent rotation. I’ll share recipes later in the summer–assuming I can quit snacking.

ground cherries physalis fruits in bowl

Dear Friend and Gardener: June 27, 2014

Dear Friend and Gardener,

It was another hot and dry week in the garden. I fed the beans with some nettle tea to perk them up. I’m starting to see flea beetle damage but the plants are big enough to be able to withstand it, I think. I have also sown a second crop elsewhere in the garden in case these do surrender their fight before long.

The tomatoes are showing signs of ripening, particularly the Principe Borgheses. I am so ready for them! I love dried tomatoes, particularly in the dead of winter, but have never tried drying any of my own. Another kitchen adventure awaits. The basil tastes splendid and there is plenty of it.

I noticed a little mildew on one of my honeyberries the other day. I shall spray it with a little milk spray if it gets truly bad, but I’m willing to let a lot go for the sake of avoiding toxic sprays. It doesn’t look terrible unless you get up close, and if you get that close, well, you shouldn’t be walking on my garden beds to begin with.

I transplanted a few Blue Hubbard squash seedlings sown from the packets I got at the seed library. I have heard that nasturtiums planted with squash will help deter squash bugs. Do you know if this is true?

Hope your garden is giving you joy and lots of tomatoes.

Best,

Amy

 

 

 

Edible groundcovers

Grass is an expensive groundcover. Many homeowners love the calming look of a broad green carpet welcoming them home from work, but to keep their lawns looking their best, they turn to cartloads of chemical fertilizers, herbicides to control weeds, and pesticides to control the grubs and insects that try to coexist in the landscape.

This level of consumption comes with serious costs, both financial and environmental. Turf lawns individually consume 10,000 gallons of water each year, on average, on top of the rainfall they receive.  Unprecedented droughts and the water restrictions that often accompany them make maintaining a large turf lawn impractical and irresponsible. Expensive chemical herbicides and pesticides, whether applied by the homeowner or by a contracted landscape service, are thought to contribute to honeybee colony collapse disorder, which will have huge impacts on food availability and food prices if it isn’t curbed.

Why not try a more sustainable and innovative approach to landscaping this summer? Replace a portion of your lawn with attractive edible groundcovers and shrubs. You’ll have less mowing, more leisure time, and home-grown herbs and berries to enjoy.

Blueberries

Blueberries can be grown throughout much of the United States. In the South or on the west coast, try rabbiteye blueberries (Vaccinium ashei) like ‘Climax’ or ‘Premier’ or Southern highbush varieties like ‘Blue Ridge’ and ‘Legacy.’ In the northeast, lowbush blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium) perform best, and in the Midwest and Pacific northwest, northern highbush blueberries (V. corymbosum; try ‘Bluegold,’ ‘Duke,’ and ‘Elizabeth’) can provide attractive groundcover and fresh fruit for summertime desserts. Blueberries need acidic soil (contact your county extension service to test your soil’s pH and get advice on correct soil amendments), regular water, and sun to produce the best fruit, although they will produce fruit in partial shade. The leaves turn beautiful shades of scarlet and crimson in the fall.

blueberry leaves

Blueberry leaves covered in frost

Lingonberries

What will grow in the acid soil beneath blueberries? Lingonberries. Hardy in Zones 2-8, lingonberries are a low-growing evergreen shrub related to blueberries and cranberries. They require the same acidic soil as their blueberry brethren, and lingonberries benefit from some shade in hot weather. Plant these low-growing shrubs at the same time as your blueberries, taking care to be gentle with both plants’ brittle roots. Depending on the variety, lingonberries may provide one or two crops per year, typically once in late summer and again in winter. They’re delicious in pancakes, or made into jam or sauces.

Lingonberry 'Koralle'

Lingonberry ‘Koralle’

Thyme

If your climate tends more to the hot, dry, sunny side, replace part of your lawn with low-growing thyme (Thymus sp.). This Mediterranean herb likes full sun, excellent drainage, and low water. Bees and other pollinators love the nectar from thyme flowers, and thymol, a natural compound extracted from thyme, has antimicrobial properties and helps control parasitic mites that stress honeybee populations. Thymus serphyllum, creeping thyme, grows 6 to 12 inches tall and will spread to 1 to 3 feet wide (depending on the cultivar), providing a tough, low-maintenance groundcover. Thymus serphyllum ‘Annie Hall’ is covered by tiny pinkish-lavender flowers. ‘Pink Ripple’ also has pale pink flowers and a lemon scent to the foliage. Culinary thyme (Thymus vulgaris), has a more upright habit, but you can keep it compact by shearing off handfuls to use in soups, sauces, salads, marinades, and to flavor meats and seafood on the grill. Variety ‘Silver Queen’ has attractive white edges to the petals. Lemon thyme (T. x citriodorus) is also edible, and has (not surprisingly) a bright lemony taste.

Savory

Slightly larger than thyme, but similar in appearance, winter savory (Satureja montana) is another herb that provides great groundcover and requires little input from the gardener. It grows 15 inches tall and wide, but harvesting the stems and leaves keeps the plant compact and thick. Like thyme, it appreciates full sun and well drained soil. It is hardy to Zone 6.

Purslane

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is an underused annual herb that tastes faintly of citrus. Its fleshy leaves are rich in Vitamin C and omega 3 fatty acids. Popular in Asian and Middle Eastern cooking, it spreads rapidly by seed, which can be good or bad depending on your landscape goals. You may wish to grow it in a container for a year to see how you like it, before planting it out in the landscape. Be careful not to confuse purslane with spurge (Euphorbia chamaesyce, prostrate spurge, or Euphorbia maculata, syn. Chamaesyce maculata, spotted spurge), which can irritate skin and eyes and can be poisonous. Buy purslane seeds or plants from a reputable nursery and try the fresh new growth in salads–there are lots of recipes online. If you keep backyard chickens, you can share it with them; you’ll have plenty.

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)

Photo of purslane (Portulaca oleracea) by ZooFari (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:ZooFari) via Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Try replacing a portion of your resource-hungry lawn with these easy edible ground covers. Your wallet and your wildlife neighbors (not to mention your dinner plate) will be glad you did.

Read more:

 

Growing unusual fruit: Cornelian cherries

The third unusual fruit I ordered some weeks ago is a cornelian cherry tree.

Not a real cherry, but a dogwood relative, cornelian cherry (Cornus mas), offers appeal year-round. In the winter, enjoy its beautiful, patchy bark.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABark_of_Cornelian_cherry_Cornus_mas.jpg

Bark of Cornus mas by Downtowngal (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.

In late winter or early spring, before it leafs out, bright yellow flowers cover the plant. These beautiful flowers often precede forsythia bloom.

flowers of Cornus max

Cornus mas, Paris, France, 13 march 2005. Source: Bouba, (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Bouba), via Creative Commons {{cc-by-sa}}

In summer, Cornus mas produces olive-sized fruits. Astringent until fully ripe, their flavor has been compared to sour cherries, cranberries, and interestingly, carnations. Cornus mas is native to the southern and eastern Mediterranean, and its fruits are frequently used in Persian and Eastern European cooking. Often made into liqueurs, jams, and sauces, the fruits contain high amounts of vitamin C.

Fruits of cornelian cherry (Cornus mas)

Fruits of cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) by CarTick at English Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:CarTick) via Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The plants grow well in full sun or partial shade, reaching 20 feet tall in 25 years, and are hardy to USDA Zone 4. For best fruit production, site the plants in full sun and improve the soil with mulches of compost, and plant another variety close by to improve pollination (the plants are self-fertile). Unlike many fruiting plants, cornelian cherries are largely free of pest and disease problems, and do not suffer with anthracnose or powdery mildew like their cousin Cornus florida. And in autumn, their foliage turns a stunning scarlet.

When it arrived at my home, it did not look like much:

The mighty Cornus mas, fresh from its wrappings.

The mighty Cornus mas, fresh from its wrappings.

It came wrapped in plastic, its root ball embedded in damp shredded paper to keep it moist. I immediately gave it a soak in a pail of water to which I’d added a tablespoon or so of liquid seaweed.

Soaking bare-root plants overnight before planting helps to refresh the roots and get the plants ready for installation.

Soaking bare-root plants overnight helps to refresh the roots and get the plant ready for installation.

I planted it promptly the next day, spreading out the roots over a small hill of compost mixed with the native soil in the planting hole. I firmed it in, watered it with the brew in which it had soaked the night before, and mulched well with old wood chips.

All planted up amongst some pale yellow daffodils. Can you even see it?

All planted up amongst some pale yellow daffodils. Can you even see it?

It will probably be two years before I see any fruit at all, but perhaps I can enjoy my lingonberries and honeyberries in the meanwhile.

Read more about cornelian cherries and their culture: