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The Ultimate Guide to Growing and Enjoying Ground Cherries


Have you ever dreamed of planting something in your garden that gives you fruit right away? Meet ground cherries—the garden’s quick fix for instant fruit gratification! These little marvels are cousins to the familiar garden tomato and thrive in your vegetable patch, rewarding you with a bounty of sweet, tropical-tasting fruit all in a single season.

Ground cherries go by many names; whether you call them Cape gooseberries, poha berries, pineapple ground cherries, or golden berries, these tiny powerhouses pack a punch of nutrients. They’re not just versatile in name but also in flavor, boasting a delightful blend reminiscent of pineapple, strawberry, and a hint of citrus, all with a tropical twist.

Growing ground cherries could be a fantastic addition if you’re looking to diversify the fruits in your garden. Though they might sound exotic, they are surprisingly easy to cultivate.

Despite being under the radar for many modern gardeners, these fruits wear a charming papery husk and offer a uniquely sweet taste. Often referred to as husk tomatoes or sweet tomatillos, they left a memorable impression on me when I first tasted them at Seattle’s Pike Place Market—absolutely delicious!

Like their relatives, tomatoes and tomatillos, ground cherries grow into large, sprawling plants that yield plentiful small, yellow berries. Ready to start growing? Here are essential tips to successfully cultivate ground cherries in your own backyard.

What Are Ground Cherries?

Despite their obscurity, ground cherries have been a staple in North American gardens since the 1800s, notably the Aunt Molly’s variety, cherished by Pennsylvania Germans. These little-known fruits thrive in gardens with few pest or disease issues, offering a burst of sweet-tart flavors that evoke pineapple with a subtle tomato undertone.

Belonging to the same family as tomatoes, the Solanaceae, ground cherries develop within unique husks, earning them the nickname “husk tomatoes.” However, despite their name, they have no botanical relation to true cherries (Prunus spp.).

Often referred to as strawberry ground cherries or husk tomatoes, Physalis pruinosa, the species considered most suitable for gardening, originates from Mexico. It has gained popularity globally, with varieties like the Polish Cossack Pineapple and the Austrian Goldie enhancing home gardens worldwide.

These varieties, alongside the similar Physalis peruviana—known as Inca berry or Cape gooseberry—are easy to cultivate in climates mild enough for cherry tomatoes.

Ground Cherries
Credit: How To Grow Everything

This member of the nightshade family is a treat for the sweet tooth, with characteristics shared with eggplants and tomatoes. Depending on the variety and conditions, the plants can grow low or upright, featuring velvety, purple-veined leaves.

The flowers are bell-shaped, typically white to yellow with purple centers, and the fruit matures inside lantern-like husks that become papery when ripe. Once the husks deteriorate, they leave a delicate webbed shell around the berry.

These delightful berries, ranging in taste from pineapple with a hint of vanilla to strawberry with tomato nuances, are universally recognized for their pronounced tartness. While the term “ground cherry” covers several Physalis species, not all produce edible fruit.

The Chinese lantern (P. alkekengi), for instance, is grown more for decoration than for its berries. Though edible ground cherries might lack the ornamental appeal of the Chinese lantern, their encased fruits are a culinary delight, celebrated in kitchens since the 17th century.

The Chinese lantern (P. alkekengi)
Credit: wikipedia

The most common type, P. pruinosa, hails from subtropical Central America, similar to its relatives, tomatoes and tomatillos. Meanwhile, another species, P. peruviana, native to Peru and Chile, is commonly known as Cape gooseberry or golden berry.

While many ground cherry species have naturalized in North America, they are most often encountered through heirloom seed catalogs. Resembling small, sprawling shrubs, ground cherry plants display bright green, toothed leaves and produce yellow flowers followed by fruit in late summer to early fall, all encased in a papery husk like the tomatillo.

Common Name Ground cherry, husk tomato, strawberry tomato
Botanical Name Physalis pruinosa
Family Solanaceae
Plant Type Annual, fruit, shrub
Mature Size 1–3 ft. tall and wide
Sun Exposure Full sun
Soil Type Loamy, sandy, well-drained
Soil pH Acidic
Bloom Time Summer
Hardiness Zones 4–8 (USDA)
Native Area Central America
Toxicity Toxic to people, toxic to pets1

Ideal for planting in spring as annuals, ground cherries grow quickly and complete their lifecycle in one season. However, it’s important to note that all parts of the plant, except the fruit, are toxic to humans and animals.

Children especially enjoy ground cherries in garden settings for their sweet, fruity taste that’s enjoyable right off the plant, with no additional sugar or cooking required. Bursting with vitamins A and C, as well as antioxidants, ground cherries are a healthy, fun snack comparable to spring peas or blueberries.

Planting Options for Ground Cherries

Considering growing ground cherries? Whether you choose to transplant seedlings, start seeds indoors, or directly sow in your garden, here’s how to get started.

You have three main options for planting ground cherries: starting seeds indoors, direct sowing into your garden, or using transplants. Let’s explore each method:

  • Starting Seeds Indoors:

While many recommend indoor sowing to avoid unpredictable outdoor conditions, the vigorous self-seeding of ground cherries shows direct sowing can also work well. If starting seeds indoors, plant them about 1/4 inch deep in a high-quality seed-starting mix.

Biodegradable seed cells can be helpful, as you can directly plant them in the garden later, minimizing root disturbance. Water the seeds initially, then regularly with a gentle spray, keeping the soil moist but not waterlogged.

Place them in a warm area between 75°F and 85°F. Expect germination in about two weeks. Once sprouted, keep the seedlings near a sunny window and maintain even moisture until it’s safe to gradually transition them outdoors, allowing them to adjust to outdoor conditions.

  • Direct Sowing:

Wait until after the last expected frost to sow seeds directly in your garden. Prepare the soil by loosening it and mixing in some compost. Lightly moisten the area, then sprinkle the seeds on top and cover with a 1/4 inch layer of soil. Gently pat the soil without compacting it too much.

  • Using Transplants:

If handling small seeds isn’t appealing, consider purchasing seedlings or transplants from a nursery or specialty seed supplier. Start the indoor seed process 6-8 weeks before the last expected frost. Use a high-quality potting mix designed for fruits and vegetables, which typically doesn’t require repotting unless you’re moving a plant to a larger container.

Once your local frost dates have passed, gradually acclimatize your plants outdoors, then transfer them to a sunny spot with well-draining soil.

Ground cherries are known for their tenacity and ability to self-seed, so planting them once could provide years of harvest!

Planting Ground Cherries
Credit: Sow Right Seeds

How to Plant Ground Cherries

Ground cherries thrive in USDA zones 4 and above but are frost-sensitive. To get a head start, sow seeds indoors 6-8 weeks before the last expected frost date. Be patient, as these seeds can take some time to germinate. Gradually acclimatize the young plants to outdoor conditions before transplanting.

You can start ground cherries from seeds indoors well before the last spring frost or wait to sow them directly outdoors once the frost danger has passed. In low desert regions like Arizona, optimal times for indoor seeding are December to January and May to June.

The planting timeline for ground cherries closely mirrors tomatoes and tomatillos, favoring warm soil. Typically, you’d plant them about 2 weeks after the last frost.

For warmer climates like Arizona’s low desert: Set out young plants from February 15 to March and again from July 15 to September. Ground cherries require warm temperatures and ample sunlight. In extremely hot areas, they benefit from some afternoon shade.

During Arizona’s intense summers, ground cherries continue fruiting until peak heat. If they survive, they’ll start producing again as temperatures cool.

The seeds’ tough coats slow germination, so it’s best to start them indoors under warm conditions—above 70°F (21°C)—using a heat mat for better germination. Like tomatoes, they require bright indoor lighting and need to be gradually introduced to outdoor conditions.

Ground cherries are versatile and can grow in traditional garden beds, raised beds, or containers. Ensure the location receives plenty of sunlight and has well-draining soil. Avoid areas heavily shaded by tall trees or shrubs.

Raised beds and containers are ideal, especially in locations with excellent drainage and low nitrogen soil—high nitrogen tends to encourage more leaves than fruit.

When planting ground cherries in containers: Choose pots at least 8 inches deep filled with high-quality potting mix.

In garden beds, these plants prefer full sun but might need some afternoon shade if temperatures exceed 90°F. They thrive in slightly acidic to neutral soil (pH 6.0-6.8). Begin with a light, nutrient-rich soil, or enhance your garden’s soil by mixing in compost. A layer of mulch around the plants helps keep the soil moist and the fruits clean as they ripen.

Amend the soil with compost and a balanced organic fertilizer as per the label’s instructions before planting. Install supports like tomato cages to help the plants bear the weight of the fruits.

When planting, ensure the root ball is set deep enough to encourage root growth, leaving only a few leaves above the soil. Space the plants about 24 inches apart to ensure good air circulation.

Much like tomatoes, ground cherries benefit from deep planting. Trim the lower leaves and set the plant deep in the soil, leaving a few leaves above ground. These sprawling plants need room to grow, so allow about 2-3 feet between each plant.

If you’re into vertical gardening, consider staking them early on to keep their brittle branches off the ground. In square-foot gardening setups, allocate 2-4 squares per plant for optimal growth.

Plant Ground Cherries
Credit: Growing In The Garden

Ground Cherry Care Guide

  • Sunlight Requirements:

Ground cherries flourish in full sun, thriving with at least six hours of direct sunlight daily. While they can handle some shade, less sunlight may reduce their fruit output.

  • Soil Conditions:

These plants adapt to various soil types but perform best in well-draining, organically rich soil with a slightly acidic pH.

  • Watering Needs:

Ground cherries prefer consistently moist soil, requiring roughly one inch of water weekly. Inadequate moisture might lead to blossom drop without fruit production. Regular watering is essential, especially during dry spells.

For those growing ground cherries in containers, consider using a self-watering pot or an olla to ensure steady moisture. To check soil moisture, insert your finger an inch into the soil near the plant’s base—if it feels dry, it’s time to water.

  • Temperature and Humidity:

These resilient plants thrive in temperatures between 55°F and 65°F within their recommended growing zones. They can tolerate up to 85°F, but frost is detrimental. Protect them with row covers or a blanket if a sudden frost threatens before the fruits mature. Generally, humidity doesn’t pose a problem for ground cherries.

  • Fertilization:

Ground cherries greatly benefit from soil enriched with compost. Incorporating an organic fruit and vegetable fertilizer at planting can boost growth, especially in poorer soils. To maintain their prolific nature, apply a slow-release fertilizer regularly as per package instructions. For those in pots, a water-soluble fertilizer works well throughout the season.

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  • Pollination:

These self-pollinating plants attract a variety of pollinators like bees, enhancing your garden’s biodiversity.

Harvesting Ground Cherries: A Unique Fruit Experience

Ground cherries are a delightful and unique fruit that sets itself apart from others in a special way – they naturally drop to the ground when ripe and ready for harvesting. As these little treasures mature, their husks transition from a vibrant green to a golden, straw-like color, becoming dry and brittle.

For the best flavor, it’s recommended to let them ripen further indoors at room temperature after collecting them from the ground.

Harvesting Ground Cherries
Credit: Gardener’s Path

These bite-sized fruits start turning from green to a deep, apricot-golden hue as they ripen, signaling that they’re ready for harvesting. It’s essential to collect the fallen cherries regularly because if left on the ground, they have a tendency to sprout new plants the following season.

Not only are ground cherries deliciously sweet with a hint of pineapple flavor, but they are also incredibly easy to grow and harvest.

Curious about when to gather them? It’s as simple as keeping an eye out for the change in husk color and checking if the fruit has fallen to the ground. Generally, the plants begin bearing fruit by mid-summer, and they continue producing until the first frost hits. Each plant can yield about a pint of fruit each season.

Harvesting is straightforward: simply pick up the fruits from the ground where they’ve fallen. If you’re unsure if they’re ripe, open one up; the inside should be a yellow to orange hue. Remember, cherries with green husks aren’t ready yet and should be avoided as they contain toxins.

To make collection easier, consider placing a cloth beneath the plants to catch the falling cherries. It’s advisable to check daily once the fruit starts ripening, and mulching underneath can help simplify the process. For those growing ground cherries in containers, sweeping up the fruits with a broom can be an effective method.

If you don’t plan to consume them immediately, ground cherries can be stored at room temperature in their husks for about a week. For longer preservation, keep them cool and unwashed in their husks in a mesh bag. They can remain fresh for up to two weeks in such conditions.

Freezing or dehydrating are also excellent options for enjoying ground cherries year-round. Just be sure to consume them fully ripe to avoid the naturally occurring toxins present in their unripe state.

Harvesting Ground Cherries
Credit: Gardenerd

Using Ground Cherries

Ground cherries are incredibly versatile and can be enjoyed fresh in salads or used in various cooked dishes such as sauces. They’ll last up to two weeks in the refrigerator and can be frozen for several months when stored properly in an airtight container.

These little fruits are not only delicious but also packed with health benefits, boasting a rich content of vitamins A, C, B-1, B-2, and B-3. Try tossing them into a salad with beetroot and feta, blending them into a tropical smoothie, or cooking them into a luscious sauce. Their culinary uses are practically limitless.

You can incorporate ground cherries into desserts like coffee cakes and pies, or add a unique twist to salads and yogurts with them. Creating a ground cherry salsa with fresh tomatoes and peppers can be a delightful treat, and roasting them turns them into a delicious spread for your morning toast.

If you find yourself with an abundance, consider preserving them. They freeze beautifully on a cookie sheet and can be kept in a sealed container to use later. Making jam or chutney with them is also a fantastic way to extend their shelf life and enjoy their flavor all year round.

Using Ground Cherries
Credit: Gardener’s Path

A single ground cherry plant is quite prolific, capable of producing hundreds of berries loaded with antioxidants. If you have a large harvest, you might want to try preserving them by making jams, dehydrating them, or even fermenting them.

For jams, you can leave the fruits whole or halve them. Dehydrated ground cherries are great in baked goods, sprinkled over oatmeal, or added to trail mixes. Freezing them is straightforward: spread cleaned berries on a baking sheet, freeze briefly, then transfer to a container and store them in the freezer.

As for cooking, ground cherries make a fantastic sauce for desserts or can be transformed into a vibrant salsa with hot peppers and onions. Back when I lived in Paris, I adored seeing a single ground cherry on desserts, its husk elegantly peeled back, adding a touch of whimsy to the presentation.

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Types of Ground Cherries

Ground cherries come in several delightful varieties, each with unique characteristics:

  • Aunt Molly’s: A popular choice among gardeners, Aunt Molly’s ground cherry stands upright and bushy. It produces ½” to ¾” fruits ideal for jams and preserves. Known for its sweet, tangy flavor with a hint of the tropics, it takes about 70 days from transplanting to harvest.
  • Cossack Pineapple: As the name suggests, this variety boasts a bold, pineapple-like taste. It grows low to the ground and bears cherry-sized fruits that mature in about 75 days. Its unique flavor makes it a favorite for those looking for something different.
  • Mary’s Niagara: This is an excellent variety for those in cooler climates with shorter growing seasons, as it matures earlier than others. It grows low with a broad spread of three to four feet and offers a mildly sweet flavor.
  • Goldie: Similar to Aunt Molly’s but with a more sprawling growth, Goldie produces sweet, abundant fruits that are ready to pick 75 days after transplanting.
  • New Hanover: This variety is often praised for its superior taste, offering sweet and fruity notes. It ripens within 65 to 75 days and is a great choice if you’re looking for an alternative to Aunt Molly’s.

Ground cherries thrive best in USDA Hardiness Zones 4 through 8, while some varieties, like P. peruviana, are perennial in warmer Zones 10 to 12. There’s also the clammy ground cherry, native to the U.S. and hardy in Zones 7 through 10, and the common ground cherry historically used by Native Americans.

Ground cherries and tomatillos both belong to the Physalis genus, often causing some confusion. Ground cherries are generally smaller and range in color from yellow to orange, whereas tomatillos typically appear in shades of green.

Another relative, the cape gooseberry or goldenberry, shares similarities with ground cherries, although it is structurally more upright and less sprawling.

Starting with ground cherries can introduce a world of variety to your garden, appealing not only for their distinct flavors but also for their colorful, papery husks that make them a charming addition to any garden space.

Managing Pests and Diseases in Ground Cherries

Ground cherries are resilient plants that generally resist bacteria, fungi, viruses, and pests. However, occasional unwanted visitors may still appear.

Ground cherries are more resistant to pests and diseases than their tomato and tomatillo relatives. Nonetheless, they can face threats from whiteflies, flea beetles, hornworms, and cutworms, especially during stressful conditions like droughts. Poor air circulation can also lead to fungal issues, but maintaining proper growing conditions can mitigate many problems.

  • Animal Pests

Animals such as squirrels, raccoons, rabbits, opossums, and deer might be attracted to your garden, including ground cherries. Fortunately, the ripe fruits are well-concealed, deterring most animals. Installing fences and using floating row covers can provide additional protection against larger animals.

  • Insect Pests

While ground cherries are not highly susceptible to insect invasions, some insects might still be tempted by the plants. Cutworms can damage young seedlings by chewing through their stems.

To protect plants, wrap collars around the stems at soil level and remove any visible cutworms in the evening. Similarly, remove tomato hornworms, Colorado potato beetles, and ground cherry leaf beetles manually if spotted.

  • Slugs and Snails

These pests can quickly destroy seedling beds overnight. Effective organic control methods include removing them by hand in the evening, setting up beer traps, and applying diatomaceous earth.

  • Three-Lined Cucumber Beetle

These beetles can defoliate ground cherry plants and transmit bacterial wilt. Use floating row covers for protection and regularly inspect for eggs, adults, and larvae.

  • Flea Beetles

Tiny yet troublesome, flea beetles create holes in ground cherry leaves. Planting basil nearby can help repel them. Regular plant inspections are crucial to keep your ground cherries pest-free.

Separating nightshade plants like tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, potatoes, and ground cherries can prevent pests from easily transferring between them.

  • Diseases

Ground cherries can suffer from verticillium wilt, causing yellowing and wilting. Rotating crops and improving soil health with organic matter can prevent this issue.

Additionally, humid, still weather conditions can promote foliar diseases like early blight, anthracnose, and tobacco mosaic virus. Monitor for these diseases and consider using copper fungicide or a baking soda spray as preventative measures.

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FAQ and Troubleshooting Guide for Growing Ground Cherries

Ground cherries are quite resilient and tend to self-seed from fallen fruit. You might find them sprouting unexpectedly due to animals dispersing the seeds. If you notice an abundance of seedlings in your garden bed, you can manage them by pulling or trimming them back to soil level.

Plant ground cherries once the threat of frost has passed in the spring. To extend the harvesting period into autumn, consider using a low tunnel or row cover to protect plants from early frosts. Ground cherry plants typically reach 3 to 4 feet in height. Without support, they will spread out rather than grow upwards.

Using a tomato cage can encourage vertical growth, improving air flow and reducing the risk of leaves contacting the soil and soil-borne diseases. Applying mulch and using drip irrigation instead of overhead watering helps prevent soil from splashing onto plants, keeping them healthy.

Ground cherries are less prone to common tomato diseases but can still be affected by pests like tomato hornworms, cutworms, whiteflies, and flea beetles. For prevention, place sharp eggshells around the base to deter cutworms and use plant collars against other pests.

Regularly check plants and address infestations immediately by removing hornworms and cutworms manually and using soapy water for flea beetles and whiteflies.

  • Growing Ground Cherries in Containers

Growing ground cherries in containers is possible. Each plant should have a 10-gallon container, such as a grow bag or half barrel. Elevating these containers improves accessibility to the fruits and is particularly beneficial in gardens frequented by children, reducing the risk of plant damage.

  • Ground Cherry Growth Timeline

From seed to fruit, ground cherries mature quickly and are ready for harvest in the summer, approximately 75 to 90 days after planting.

  • Perennial Nature of Ground Cherries

Although ground cherries are treated as annuals and do not return each year, they readily self-seed. To control unwanted seedlings, collect all fruits and remove any fallen ones from the garden.

  • How to Save Ground Cherry Seeds

To save seeds, use only ripe ground cherries. Remove the husks and split the fruit to press out the seeds into a bowl. Discard the skins. Clean the seeds by adding cold water and stirring to separate them from the pulp.

After the seeds settle, remove the excess water and pulp, and rinse the seeds under cold water. Dry the seeds on a paper towel-lined plate and store them in a cool, dry place in a paper bag or container.

  • Ease of Cultivation

Ground cherries are relatively easy to grow if provided with enough sunlight and moisture, making them a rewarding choice for both novice and experienced gardeners.

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