Many are familiar with the whimsical papery “lanterns” of Physalis alkekengi, a plant commonly known as Chinese lanterns. The pendant red lanterns brighten gardens and make wonderful additions to cut flower arrangements. But did you know that other species of Physalis are grown not for aesthetics, but for the tasty fruits found inside those papery coverings called “husks”?
More popular in times past, husk or ground cherry (Physalis pruinosa) is rightfully seeing a revival in the gardening world. A member of the Solanaceae family (think tomatoes and eggplants), husk cherry produces a fruit that resembles a small, firm tomato in texture but with a sweet fruity flavor akin to strawberry or pineapple. At Sow True Seed, we offer an heirloom variety of husk cherry called Cossacks Pineapple. When ripe, the fruits are a deep golden color with the flavor of—you guessed it—pineapples.
Growing Husk Cherries
Indigenous to warm, sub-tropical climates, husk cherry should be planted outdoors only after the danger of frost has passed. To give the plants a head start on the growing season, seeds can be started indoors 4-6 weeks before the last frost. In your garden, choose a location that receives at least 6-8 hours of sunlight a day to plant your husk cherries. If you are short on space, husk cherries also do well in containers. A few plants will go a long way, as a single plant will continuously produce fruits throughout the growing season.
Harvest husk cherry fruits when the husk has become light and papery. You will find many ripe fruits on the ground, hence the common name ground cherry. Leave the husks on until ready to eat and the fruits will keep longer. For long term storage, husk cherries can also be preserved by drying or freezing.
Eating Husk Cherries
Now for the best part: eating your husk cherries! You can keep things simple and eat husk cherries raw; they’re yummy sliced in salads. For a little more effort, husk cherries also make delicious desserts such as jams and pie fillings.
The center of diversity for the genus Physalis is undoubtedly in Mexico; over 30 unique species are indigenous to this area of the Americas. So, it is not surprising that Physalis has found its way into Mexican cuisine. Unlike husk cherries, most people have either eaten or at least heard of its cousin, the tomatillo (Physalis ixocarpa). Tomatillos are similar in fruit shape, but have a delectable tart flavor that lends itself to a savory sauce such as salsa verde. The most common variety of tomatillo produces a green fruit, but Sow True Seed also offers a purple tomatillo. Salsa púrpura, anyone?
Now that you know how to grow husk cherries, tomatillos will be no problem as they have similar cultural requirements. If you plan to save seeds for next year, plant at least 4 tomatillo plants to ensure cross-pollination for viable seed production. Harvest tomatillos when the fruits are large enough to split the husk. Tomatillos can be made into soups, sauces, or for the more adventurous used as an ingredient in margaritas.
Just imagine how you can impress your friends at a potluck this summer by bringing a dessert made of husk cherries. “I’ve never even heard of husk cherries. How exotic!” Tell your friends the word Physalis is derived from an ancient Greek term meaning “bladder” in reference to the inflated husk that surrounds the fruits. Or you can take pleasure in making salsa verde with tomatillos that you grew yourself. Easy to grow and delicious, the little known husk cherry and its more popular cousin the tomatillo warrant space in your garden this year.
Written by Sow True Seed’s Agricultural Manager, Renee Fortner
Morton, J. 1987. Cape Gooseberry. p. 430–434. In: Fruits of warm climates. Julia F. Morton, Miami, FL.
http://www.extension.umn.edu/garden/yard-garden/vegetables/physalis/, University of Minnesota Extension