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Ground Cherries: America’s Fruit Secret

Ground cherry crumble. Credit: Kathy Hunt

Ground cherry crumble. Credit: Kathy Hunt

Although serious, tromp-through-the-woods foragers may scoff at my claim, I’ve begun to think of the past few months as my season of foraged foods. With camera, notebook and canvas tote in hand, I’ve been heading off to southeastern Pennsylvania every other weekend to see old friends and collect uncultivated fruit on their 30-acre farm.

There, on the edge of a dense thicket, we’ve plucked black raspberries, wineberries and blackberries from jagged vines and snapped mulberries, elderberries and sprays of delicate elderflowers from their leafy branches.

Thanks to these excursions and my friends’ vast knowledge of wild plants, I’ve learned to differentiate between the edible and poisonous, and the ripe and unripe; often there is a direct correlation between ripeness and edibility. I’ve also developed an even greater appreciation for local, seasonal and oft-forgotten foods.

Ground cherries known by many names

Topping my list of wild, wondrous and overlooked fruits is the dainty ground cherry. Found dangling from low, bushy plants in early fall, a ground cherry resembles a tiny Chinese lantern or pint-sized tomatillo. Similar to tomatillos and tomatoes, it is a member of the nightshade family. Occasionally, it goes by the names husk tomato, strawberry tomato, cape gooseberry and its scientific genus, physalis.

When ripe, the ground cherry drops off the plant and onto the ground. If you pick up the fruit and peel back its straw-colored, tissue-like husk, you uncover a waxy amber berry that looks a bit like a cranberry or small cherry. Bite into the ripe berry’s thin skin and you will taste a pleasing combination of pineapple, strawberry and apricot. Sweet but not cloying, juicy but not sticky, this is an extraordinary little fruit.

What amazes me most about the ground cherry is that until a few weeks ago I had never eaten or even seen one. Considering that ground cherries are indigenous to the Americas, can be found in every state except Alaska and are commonly grows in the East and Midwest, I am stunned by my ignorance.

And yet, I’m not. In spite of the plant’s ability to thrive in poor soils, survive neglect and produce baskets of beautiful berries, the ground cherry has never caught on in the United States. Only Native Americans have been known to consume copious quantities of this vitamin C-rich fruit.

Outside the U.S., people feel more passionately about ground cherries. Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the south of France and other temperate regions of Europe cultivate these plants commercially.

In Europe and elsewhere, cooks put ground cherries in pies, compotes, jams and sauces. Some dry the sweet berries and use them as flavorful substitutes for raisins in breads, scones, cookies and sweet rolls. Others pull back but leave on the fruits’ calyx, using the husks as handles to dip the raw berries into melted chocolate or caramel.

A ground cherry. Credit: Kathy Hunt

A ground cherry. Credit: Kathy Hunt

In England ground cherries appear in home decor as well as in desserts. Left in their paper shells, the long-lasting fruit brightens floral decorations during the winter months.

Although I may have lucked out and found a private source, you don’t have to drive hours or befriend farm owners to get ground cherries. Imported from New Zealand, they are available in springtime at well-stocked grocery stores. You can also find them in the fall at farm stands and farmers markets.

If you can’t track them down, you can always attempt to grow your own. Flourishing in a variety of soils and in garden pots, ground cherries require little else besides a sunny spot. The plants reach about 3 feet in height and possess green, somewhat velvety, heart-shaped leaves.

Whether you’re collecting them from the ground or a local market, look for fruit that’s plump and golden to orange-yellow in color. Green ground cherries are unripe and may prove poisonous for some consumers.

Choose berries that are still encased in their parchment covers. To prevent spoilage, leave them in their husks until you’re ready to consume them.

Placed in a paper bag and refrigerated, ground cherries will keep for several months. Before using them, pull off the husk and wash off the fruit. Ripe ground cherries can be eaten raw or cooked.

Ground Cherry Crumble

Prep Time: 5 to 10 minutes

Cook Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 35 to 40 minutes

Yield: Makes 6 servings

Ingredients

3¼ cups ground cherries

1 large Granny Smith or other tart apple, peeled and diced

1 tablespoon lemon juice

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

¾ cup firmly packed brown sugar

¾ cup rolled oats

¼ cup all-purpose flour

Pinch ground ginger

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened and cut into chunks

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 375 F. Grease a deep 8-inch baking dish and set aside.

2. Toss together the ground cherries, apple, lemon juice and granulated sugar. Spoon the mixture into the greased baking dish.

3. In a separate bowl, stir together the brown sugar, rolled oats, flour and ginger. Using your fingers or a fork, incorporate the chunks of butter until you have a well-formed, crumbly topping.

4. Spread the topping evenly over the ground cherries. Bake, uncovered, for 30 minutes or until the top is golden brown and bubbling. Serve warm.

Main photo: Ground cherry crumble. Credit: Kathy Hunt



Zester Daily contributor Kathy Hunt is a food writer, cooking instructor and author of the seafood cookbook "Fish Market." Her writings on food and travel have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and VegNews, among other publications. Currently she is writing the nonfiction book "Herring: A Global History" for Reaktion Books. Kathy can also be found at KitchenKat.com and on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram. 

7 COMMENTS
  • Lisa 10·15·14

    Interesting article! A great idea for a new fall treat!

  • Sharon 10·15·14

    I love ground cherries!! I saw them recently in the store so now I have a recipe to use them. Sounds delicious.

  • Laura 10·18·14

    I’m amazed that I have never heard of ground cherries; they sound delicious! I can’t wait to try them. I’m going to start keeping an eye out for these on my fall walks with our dog.

  • Julia della Croce 10·28·14

    I love ground cherries maybe more than almost any other fruit I can grow in my garden. Once you plant them, they become invasive, like weeds, but I hate to pull them out of a bed where they don’t belong. They’re so delicious and safe in their little paper jackets, they last forever…well, almost. I’m glad you wrote about these little wonders, Kathy.

  • Kathy Hunt 10·29·14

    Thanks, Julia! I was amazed to see how weedy and obtrusive the plants become. Even so, I would also hate to pull out these tiny gems. They’re so pretty and tasty. It’s wonderful to hear that ground cherries have more than a few fans!

  • Laurie 8·11·16

    I just discovered what ground cherries are today at a farmer’s market. What a delicious find it was, my question is I seen that it was mentioned to store them in a brown bag in the fridge. Is it necessary to put in a brown? Or can you just put them in a bowl? Please answer quick, because I have them in bowl an not bag. Thank you.

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