Grow Sweet + Nutty Ground Cherries
And then make a delicious compote from your harvest.
Ground cherries (Physalis spp.) are native in many parts of the United States and often grow in fields and alongside roads. The plants have large, deep green leaves and tons of pale yellow flowers that develop into cherry-sized fruits. Start seeds of this frost-sensitive plant indoors six to eight weeks before your average last-frost date or buy transplants, which are increasingly available at nurseries and by mail order from seedsavers.org. Be sure to harden off seedlings before transplanting them outdoors.
Aunt Molly's: 70 days to fruit. A Polish heirloom with a captivating citrus flavor.
Cossack Pineapple: 75 days to fruit. Popular variety with a distinct pineapple taste. Stores well in husks.
Goldie: 75 days to fruit. Produces masses of large, golden fruit.
Transplant ground cherries after all danger of frost has passed and the soil is thoroughly warm. Raised beds are best for growing ground cherries, especially in heavy clay soils, because the plants need good drainage. Work a couple inches of compost into the soil before planting. Like tomatoes, ground cherries sprout roots along their stems, so plant seedlings deeply, leaving three sets of leaves above the soil line. Set the plants three feet apart in rows three to four feet apart. Ground cherries produce up to 300 fruits per plant and bear nonstop until frost. Four to six plants are sufficient for the average-sized family.
Mulch lightly to suppress weeds and conserve soil moisture. The plant thrives best with two inches of water per week. Spray the plants with diluted fish fertilizer when they set flowers and again two weeks later.
Ground cherries typically bear fruit about 70 days from transplant (late July to August in most regions) and continue until frost. The fruits have the peculiar characteristic of falling to the ground before they are ripe. Simply gather them up after they drop and keep them at room temperature in a basket without removing their husks. In a week or less, their color will deepen from light yellow to the warm apricot gold that signals ripeness. Store ground cherries in their husks. They will stay fresh for up to three months if placed in a mesh bag and kept in a cool place (50 degrees).
Ground cherry plants are susceptible to the same pests and diseases as tomatoes and tomatillos, but are hardier, perhaps because of their weed-like nature. Flea beetles and whiteflies can attack, especially if the plants are drought-stressed. Keep plants regularly watered and place floating row covers over them if these pests are particularly prevalent in your garden.
The undersized cages sold for tomatoes work perfectly for supporting lightweight ground cherry plants, and will keep them from sprawling.
Suppress weeds and make harvesting easier by growing ground cherries on landscape fabric. Before planting, spread the cloth over the bed and secure with landscaping pins. Then cut holes into the fabric and plant seedlings.
The distinctive, sweet-tart taste of ground cherries lends itself to wildly diverse recipes. Remove the husks and rinse the fruits before preparing. Husked fruits keep in the refrigerator for five to seven days. To freeze ground cherries, simply spread the husked, washed fruits on a rimmed cookie sheet and place them in the freezer. Once they're hard, package them in plastic bags. The simplest way to eat ground cherries is to remove the husk and pop the fruit into your mouth. Raw, chopped ground cherries also taste delicious dropped into pancakes or mixed into salsa.
Ground Cherry-Pineapple Crumble
3 cups halved ground cherries
3 cups fresh pineapple chunks
½ cup sugar
½ cup blanched almonds
¼ cup unsalted butter
¼ cup flour
½ cup brown sugar
1. Combine ground cherries and pineapple chunks with sugar. Spread in a baking pan.
2. In a food processor, pulse almonds until coarsely chopped, and then add butter, flour, and brown sugar. Pulse until roughly blended; then spread over the fruit.
3. Bake at 375°F or 30 to 40 minutes, or until bubbling and golden. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.