I remember growing up on the farm, I would be out in the pasture and pick ground cherries because their paper husks were so pretty they reminded me of a Chinese lantern.
Little did I know at the time that they were really good for you to eat and they are packed full of nutritional value.
In the beginning, Native Americans used the ground cherries for medicinal purposes. Of the genus physalis, ground cherries originated in tropical America. There are several species that grow wild in the United States. Although another member of the
physalis family — the tomatillo — has become popular due to interest in authentic Mexican cuisine, the delicious ground cherry is mainly overlooked.
Ground cherries are ripe when they fall from the plant, hence the name “ground” cherries. Because the branches are low it is often difficult to see the pale husks. Ground cherries are not to be eaten green. The immature fruits contain solanine, the substance that makes potatoes toxic when they turn green.
Allowing the fruit to ripen in the husk for several weeks after harvest will make them sweeter. The ground cherry provides a good source of Niacin and vitamins A and C. Not only is vitamin A good for our eyesight, but is believed to inhibit cancer and lower cholesterol. Vitamin C protects us against cold and flu and is thought to lower our blood pressure and protect us against Parkinson’s disease. This fruit also contains pectin, which helps regulate our blood sugar.
Ground cherries resemble Cape gooseberries. The ground cherry plant grows one to three feet high. Normal weather and warm temperatures are suitable for its harvesting. The plant needs plenty of water during harvesting but water should not be given during fruit ripening time. The papery husk covers ground cherry as protection. Compared to tomatillo and Cape gooseberry, this is a small fruit about the size of a nickel. Its taste is sweet and earthy flavor. Due to these characteristics, it is becoming appealing.
Although most gardeners cannot resist eating the delectable fruits right off the plants, ground cherries make wonderfulpies and jams and can be poached
and served over ice cream. Include ground cherries in fruit salads and muffins or dip them in chocolate fondue. For an exotic plate garnish, leave on a bit of stem and carefully pull back the husk to expose the sweet fruit.
They also may be dried and eaten like raisins or figs. Ground cherries can be frozen for year-round use. Simply remove the husks, rinse and pat dry then freeze on a cookie sheet in one layer. Once frozen, store in a freezer bag.
Donna Cook is the owner of Rabbit Creek Gourmet Foods in Louisburg, Kan. She is also a Master Gardener, Master Food Volunteer and on the board of directors of the Home Baking Association.