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: 30 May, 2014

Dear Friend and Gardener,

Memorial Day, the traditional if unofficial beginning of summer, was last Monday, and it definitely feels like summer. After a surprisingly long spring–for here, anyway–temperatures are beginning to hover around the 90s, humidity has returned, and the nights are warm as well. I wonder what the months of July and August will look like–more of the same, or substantially hotter and muggier?

And consistent with the advent of summer, the vegetable garden is coming on strong. I have small tomatoes on ‘Sophie’s Choice,’ a short-season variety I’m trying for the first time this year. Tomatoes ‘Black Prince’ and ‘Principe Borghese’ seem to grow three inches a day, and I pinch suckers every morning. I must get to work on finding some taller stakes.

little tomatoes 'sophie's choice'I’ve also got tiny little pickling cucumbers coming along. I’m the only one in the house who loves pickles, so every fruit is for me. Now I need to find the perfect recipe to make those cukes taste like the pickles I used to get from the deli in Chicago. I wonder if the deli would share their recipe? Must remember to ask.

small cukes 2

I can’t believe I’m still picking peas in June! Around here, spring usually lasts a week, and a few days in April in the 90s spell the end of the seasonal snap pea attempt. I didn’t plant very many peas but I’ve harvested at least a quart already. That many not seem like much, but in the past, I’ve felt fortunate if I could pick enough in a spring to add to a pasta salad. I’m trying not to let the success to to my head.

Bush beans are looking rather vital and vigorous, and so far, no sign of flea beetles. There; I’ve tempted fate. I’ve got tiny Anaheim peppers on two plants and am waiting for the jalapeños to catch on. Nasturtiums planted in the corner of the bed are green and healthy–but I think the soil may be a bit rich for them to produce many flowers. Or maybe I’m suffering my typical lack of patience.

bush beans 1

Do you grow calendulas? I’m trying those for the first time this year as well. I can’t explain why it’s taken me so long to get around to trying these.

Lots of basil–I never have enough. The lettuce is hanging on since I covered it with shade cloth. The 4-year-old next door thinks it’s crazy that my lettuce can get a sunburn, so I showed him the leaves that got a little crispy in the sun one day. I don’t think it was quite what he had imagined.

Physalis 'Cossack Pineapple' plant growing rapidly.

Physalis ‘Cossack Pineapple’ plant growing rapidly.

The shiso seedlings died, so I’ve got to start some more. And this year I’m trying another new thing: ground cherries (Physalis pruinosa). This plant likes it hot, for sure. It seems to double in size for every day we have over 90 degrees. This pattern cannot be sustainable, or it will be The Plant That Ate Durham before the kids are out of school for the summer. Tiny flowers already appear beneath the giant leaves, but I think the fruits will take a while to form. I’ll let you know.

physalis flower 2

I got the fig tree transplanted earlier in the spring, and it seems to be settling in nicely. I’ve got lots of little figlets already; I hope it will fruit more productively now that it’s out of the container. I can’t wait to have my favorite fig and goat cheese sandwiches!

Hope your garden is doing well. What’s the veg you’re most excited about this year?

May your tomato plants live long and prosper,

Amy