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.

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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

Germination!

My home office is carpeted with seed flats of various origins. What’s sprouting today?

Red-foliated white cotton seedlings

Red-foliated white cotton seedlings